Before he came to Augusta this week, Russell Henley stopped in Athens to see some old friends. The budding PGA Tour star played a round of golf with some of his former Georgia teammates, then settled down on the Bulldogs’ familiar practice facility and putted until he couldn’t see the holes anymore.
It provided Georgia golf coach Chris Haack with an unexpected teaching moment for his pupils.
“I said, ‘you want to see what it is to work hard? This guy was out here on the putting green for two hours after y’all left,’” Haack said. “He came back out Tuesday morning and putted for two or three more hours before they got out of class and went and played nine holes with them. Then he took off and headed for Augusta.”
Where he practiced and played again. That work ethic is paying off for Henley.
Just two years out of college, the Macon native will play in his first Masters tournament Thursday. It’s hard even for Henley to believe.
“Just the excitement of being here and knowing I’m a contestant is a feeling like I’ve never had,” said Henley, who has played in two U.S. Opens. “I’ve played two majors, played some PGA Tour events, and those are definitely nerve-racking at times. But something about walking around here and just knowing the history and just knowing how much it means to me adds to the excitement.”
Henley wasted little time earning his invitation. He won his first event as a fully exempt member of the PGA Tour, smoking the field at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. And Henley didn’t back into his first title. He shot the lowest score in tournament history — 24-under-par 256 — and the third-lowest in PGA Tour history.
Henley earned his tour card as a three-time winner on the Web.com Tour last year. His first victory also came in his first event on that tour, when he was still an amateur and a UGA senior.
That is why Haack thinks Henley, who won seven individual titles at Georgia, shouldn’t be counted out at Augusta, especially if he gets off to a good start.
“He’s a good front-runner,” Haack said. “When he’s in contention or he’s got the lead, he feeds off that a little bit. He kind of thrives on the pressure. He’s one of those guys who kind of responds to that.”
Thanks to his time at Georgia, Henley isn’t your typical Masters rookie. The Bulldogs, as at Georgia Tech, play Augusta National every year. Including rounds he’s played here since qualifying in January and his practice rounds, he will have played the golf course 12 times by the time he tees off in the tournament at 8:11 a.m. Thursday.
Henley figures the experience can’t hurt.
“The more I play and walk the course, the more — I wouldn’t say comfortable — I would say familiar I feel,” Henley said. “I think a lot of the tee shots are very different than anywhere else you go, and how you play each hole. You have to think it through more than any other place I’ve played. Mainly it’s the greens, and I feel more familiar with them every time I play.”