“It’s all about getting the ‘W.'”
It’s a favorite phrase of Tiger Woods that reigns true on the PGA Tour, because it doesn’t matter how a golfer wins a tournament. A win is a win, whether it’s by 1 or 100 shots.
For PGA Tour rookies, a win is more than a win. It gives them a two-year exemption to play on the big stage, and can cement a player in the Tour’s top-tier tournaments, as well as in the major championships they dreamed about competing in as a junior golfer. That’s what made rookie Russell Henley’s record-setting performance at the Sony Open so impressive. The 23-year-old didn’t just win — he dominated.
Henley entered Sunday’s final round tied with fellow 23-year-old and 2010 Palmer Cup teammate Scott Langley at 17-under. But Henley started with a birdie on the first hole at Waialae Country Club, while Langley made a bogey on the same hole, giving Henley an early three-shot lead. The separation between the two rookies remained relatively consistent through the front nine, as the players made the turn with two shots between them.
New threats were emerging, however, as veterans Charles Howell III, Tim Clark and Pat Perez moved to within three shots of the lead. But Henley is no ordinary rookie. In 2011, he became only the second amateur in history to win a Web.com Tour event, recorded one of the best finishes in the U.S. Open by an amateur in recent years (T-16) and tied Georgia’s school record for all-time victories with seven during his time as a Bulldog.
On the 10th hole, he cooly poured in a birdie putt, casually walked over to his golf bag and began snacking on an apple. No signs of nerves for the first-timer there. He maintained an even keel over the next several holes, and then made a 40-foot birdie on No. 14 to widen his lead to three shots over Tim Clark with four holes to play. Langley couldn’t keep pace, falling further behind down the stretch and finishing with an even-par 70 for a T-3 with Howell.
Another beautifully stroked birdie putt on No. 15 increased Henley’s lead to four. And with only three holes to play, it was really only a matter of whether he would be able to hold on. Henley answered any questions about the onset of nerves down the stretch, calmly rolling in another birdie on the No. 16 after a well-placed approach shot from 155 yards.
If this weren’t indication enough of how the three-time Web.com winner intended to close the tournament, he took dead aim and hammered a draw to within 17 feet on No. 17, a par 3, to set up another good look at birdie. Almost predictably, Henley rolled the putt home while Tim Clark looked on with a half-smile, knowing that although he had paced Henley for the day at 6-under, the three-shot gap between the two to start play was proving insurmountable.
On the final hole, betraying none of the overwhelming emotions that surely accompany standing on the precipice of one’s first PGA Tour win, Henley calmly got up and down on the closing par 5 for five straight birdies and a final-round record 63.
“That’s the most nervous I’ve ever been,” Henley said after the round. “I couldn’t feel my legs or my arms. They were just numb and just moving fast and I felt like I couldn’t control them. But I’ve been in that situation before, just not quite as dramatic.”
Henley’s final score of 24-under 256 gave him the lowest total score in tournament history at the Sony Open, as well as the lowest total score for any rookie in Tour history. With the win, he earned $990,000, and moved to a tie for first in the FedExCup points list with Hyundai Tournament of Champions winner Dustin Johnson. The win not only gets him into next week’s field at the Humana Classic, Henley will be teeing it up for the first time this season in April at the Masters.
If he thought he was nervous Sunday afternoon in Hawaii, imagine how nervous he’ll be in a few months at Augusta. But as Henley proved on Sunday, that might not be a bad thing.