LA QUINTA, Calif. – As Russell Henley was storming to victory Sunday in his PGA Tour debut, some 5,000 miles away his buddies were camped out at a Charleston, S.C., bar, partaking in a drinking game. The basic rules of the game: Every time Henley made a clutch putt, they took a shot.
As a reminder, Henley, a rookie, won the Sony Open at 24 under par.
He closed with a final-round 63.
He carded a back-nine 29.
In short: Many clutch putts were holed. And, we can assume, many shots were taken.
In his hometown of Macon, Ga., the students and teachers at his former high school, Stratford Academy, participated in “Russell Henley Day” on Tuesday. Everyone – even the headmaster – wore Hawaiian shirts and draped leis around their necks.
“It’s been like a dream,” Henley said Wednesday at the Humana Challenge.
On Sunday night, he flew from Honolulu to L.A. and couldn’t sleep. The following night, he caught himself waking up in the middle of the night, smiling, knowing that his job was safe for a few years and, better yet, in a few months, the blonde-haired kid from Macon would tee it up at The Masters, his lifelong dream.
Since he won in Hawaii, the 23-year-old has received a congratulatory tweet from Gary Player – “Congratulations @RussHenleyGolf on your fantastic first victory on the @PGATOUR in the @SonyOpen in Hawaii. My best throughout the season." – and been flooded with text messages from family and friends, former classmates and fellow players. When he arrived at PGA West and walked down the range, he laughed his way through the attendant back slaps and atta-boys from Robert Garrigus and Davis Love III and, well, he can’t even remember the rest.
Henley’s run last week was fueled by supreme ball-striking and sublime putting, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that there are several other talented 20somethings who are capable of authoring similarly inspiring performances. And soon.
Henley pointed to former Georgia teammate Harris English when asked which young player – besides Rory McIlroy, of course – impressed him most. “I think you’re going to be seeing a lot of him for a long time,” Henley said.
John Peterson, the 2011 NCAA champion from LSU, is no less impressive. Neither are Luke Guthrie and Ben Kohles, both two-time winners on the Web.com Tour last year. And neither is Scott Langley . . . Morgan Hoffmann . . . Patrick Reed . . . Patrick Cantlay . . . Jordan Spieth. See where this is going?
“I don’t know if they come up thinking they’re ready and that they can beat these guys,” said two-time U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen, now 48. “But they know what they can do, and when they’re in the hunt, they have the belief that there’s no reason they can’t keep it going.”
For Henley, that aggressive mentality was honed on the Web.com Tour, where he apprenticed in 2011 and won twice in his last four starts. (He also won on that circuit in 2010, as a senior at Georgia).
In September, he was locked in a taut duel with Brad Fritsch at the Chiquita Classic. After Saturday they sat at 20 under (66-65-65), five clear of the field. But then Henley played a bit more conservatively during that final round, began trying to just get it in the house instead of making a score, and on a day when the weather was perfect and the greens were smooth, a Sunday 70 nearly wasn’t enough. Henley dropped into a playoff, but eventually prevailed in Charlotte.
“I definitely look back on that thinking and remembering that you have to attack all four days,” he said. “Just keep attacking.”
At the 2011 U.S. Open – better known, perhaps, as the dawning of the Rory Era – Henley advanced through qualifying and made the cut, finishing T-42. That week, though, he remembered McIlroy saying that on the final day, staked to a big lead, he simply wanted to pick good targets and make aggressive swings.
Simple, isn’t it? That little pre-shot reminder is comforting until you make a few bogeys, and your swing doesn’t feel quite right, and somebody in the penultimate group just caught fire, and you start considering different scenarios, and then, suddenly, it’s a little bit harder to pick good targets and make aggressive swings.
At the Sony, Henley’s lead was trimmed to two at the turn, but he powered toward the finish with a back-nine 29 that included birdies on the final five holes. He thought back to Tiger Woods at the ’97 Masters, and how Woods’ father would always say, You have to run through the finish line. Just because you get a little ahead doesn’t mean you start jogging in a race.
“You start to hear that mentality,” Henley said, “and I think you begin to feed off of it.”
Which was unfortunate for Tim Clark, of course. At Waialae, the diminutive South African birdied seven of his last 11 holes, shot 63, and still finished three shots behind Henley. Afterward, Clark marveled, “It just seems like there’s nothing he can do wrong.”
Henley and the rest of his pals will endure lean times, no doubt. But then there will also be weeks when their talent overwhelms the field, new stars thrust onto the biggest stage, and they leave in their wake nothing but faded Hawaiian shirts and empty shot glasses.
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