PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Russell Henley didn’t waste much time getting started Thursday at PGA National.
The 24-year-old began his opening round at the Honda Classic with four straight birdies and kept things going from there, ultimately carding a 6-under 64 that left him one shot behind overnight leader Rory McIlroy.
“Getting off to a good start here is pretty important,” said Henley, who reached 17 of 18 greens in regulation Thursday. “Every hole is challenging, and you have to decide what to do with the wind and where it’s coming from.”
While Henley has struggled to get his 2014 campaign off the ground – his West Coast swing consisted of three missed cuts and a T-52 finish at Pebble Beach – he seems to have a feel for the Champion Course. He tied for 13th here in his debut last year, shooting par or better in three of his four rounds amid difficult conditions.
Looking back, Henley credits his career at the University of Georgia for preparing him to face some of the more difficult venues on the PGA Tour.
“I think college golf may have something to do with that,” he explained. “Most courses you play are pretty difficult, at least the ones where you play the best teams and all of the highest-ranked tournaments. They’re pretty tough courses.”
Henley’s afternoon took a fortuitous turn at the par-5 third hole, where he pulled his 6-iron approach into a hazard left of the green. While the ball was partially submerged in water, he drew upon memories of Bill Haas’ famed pitch three years ago at East Lake, blasting the ball onto the green after taking off one shoe and hiking up his pant leg.
“I hit it and kind of lost it and looked up, and it came out way higher and softer than I could ever imagine,” said Henley, who went on to save par. “It was pretty cool to have a birdie putt after that, but I definitely didn’t deserve it.”