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Henley Living the 'Dream'
Russell Henley seemingly came out of nowhere last week to win the Sony Open. The 23-year-old became the first rookie in 12 years to win his PGA Tour debut after closing with a 7-under 63 at Waialea Country Club in Honolulu to edge Tim Clark by three strokes.
His 72-hole total of 24-under 256 broke the Sony Open record by four strokes. Henley finished with five straight birdies en route to the victory, worth $990,000, guaranteeing the former Georgia Bulldog a spot in the 2013 Masters and PGA Championship.
Despite his heroics on the back nine, Henley admitted to almost overwhelmed in the heat of the moment. "That's the most nervous I've ever been," he said last Sunday. "I was trying not to think about Augusta out there."
"I just kept telling myself this is a long year, you're going to play this game for a long time, be patient, and it doesn't have to happen now," he added after accepting the Sony Open trophy and winner's check. "Just everything I could to psych myself out of thinking about winning. It worked."
It's not like Henley was an unaccomplished player before making a big splash in Hawaii. During his amateur career he was recognized as the nation's best amateur golfer and awarded the 2010 Haskins Award, and was selected to the 2011 U.S. Walker and Palmer cup teams. In May 2011 he triumphed in the Stadion Classic at UGA on the Web.com Tour, becoming only the second amateur to win on the developmental circuit of the PGA Tour.
Henley has now shifted his focus to his second PGA Tour event, the $5.6 million Humana Challenge, which starts Thursday in La Quinta, Calif. The former Bob Hope Classic will take place at La Quinta Country and the Nicklaus Private and Palmer courses at PGA West.
On the eve of the tournament, Henley sat down with reporters and discussed his whirlwind past week. Here's what the former Georgia All-American told the media during the following Q&A.
MODERATOR: We would like to welcome Russell Henley. Russell, thanks for taking the time to be in here today. I know you look a little tired after the big win and coming back from Sony. If you want to talk about what it's been like the last couple days and then we'll have a few questions.
RUSSELL HENLEY: It's been a dream. I've always wanted to make it to the PGA Tour. I wanted to make it to the Masters. And that's kind of been my ultimate goal is somehow making it to the Masters one day, growing up Macon, Georgia. So the last few days has been kind of crazy for me. Last night was my first normal night of sleep. I finally have gotten a little sleep. And I'm just really excited to be here and play another golf tournament this week.
MODERATOR: Okay. Questions?
Q. Your first normal night of sleep because you were trying to get over here from Hawaii or because of the fallout from the victory?
RUSSELL HENLEY: Probably the fallout. I mean, I have just been so excited about everything that's going on. Sunday night I flew from Honolulu to L.A. overnight and didn't really sleep at all. And then last night I just caught myself waking up a lot during the night, just kind of feel like a little kid. I just got an invite to play in the Masters and to play on the PGA Tour and I'm still just trying not to take it for granted. So it's been crazy.
Q. What's the coolest thing that's happened since you won?
RUSSELL HENLEY: Let's see, I got a tweet from Gary Player. That was pretty cool. But I think that just calling back home to my friends who I grew up playing golf with and talking to them about playing this April and stuff like that. That's been pretty cool for me. And I got a lot of texted messages from friends back home and just going through those and answering those has been pretty special.
Q. It's not every day that any player takes the lead throughout basically the whole tournament and especially from Saturday to Sunday. I know you've won a lot of tournaments before, what was your mindset going out there with the lead and, obviously, you didn't just play to protect it. What are you, what are you like in those front running situations?
RUSSELL HENLEY: I got a lot of great experience last year on the Web.com Tour late in the year. In Charlotte it was me and Brad Fritsch, I don't know how to say his name, it's pretty hard to say, but Brad and I had a great time Saturday. We both shot 65 and we were at 20 under. 20 under going to the last day. And we were leading by five over the rest of the field.
And I definitely tried to attack that Sunday, but I think I could have done a little bit better job of attacking. I played a little bit more conservative than the first couple days just thinking that, okay, if I can just make a few birdies and it wasn't really my mindset to not, to just shoot around par, but when you play a little more conservative on a course with great weather and great greens, somebody is going to catch up. And both Morgan Hoffmann and Patrick Cantlay shot 65 and we went to a playoff. And I did win the tournament, but I definitely look back on that thinking and remembering you got to attack all four days. So I knew I was going to have to do something on Sunday. It definitely made me a little bit more comfortable knowing I was sharing the lead, going into Sunday with Scott, but it was just one of the things I knew I had to do was keep attacking. And I definitely just pulled from my experience on the Web.com Tour right there.
Q. Along those same lines, I think that you were kind of a lone ranger that week in Hawaii. You didn't have your family there, your girlfriend, or anything. How do you deal with knowing what was the possibilities each night going home and in a hotel room?
RUSSELL HENLEY: Well, that's a good question. I think the biggest thing or the weirdest thing was it's a five hour difference. So by the time I got home all my friends and family were usually asleep, if I played in the afternoon. So that's something that I've gotten a little bit used to on the Web.com Tour last year, not every week your family and friends get to come out and watch. A lot of tournaments, the majority of the tournaments they don't. So I'm used to it. But I think they asked me what was something you would change or what's something you would like different, and I just think it would be cool if my family or just some friends could be out here, we could grab dinner with. It seems like, once you get out here on the Tour or on the Web.com Tour, you got a bunch of friends, but not everybody has the same schedule and you're not always grabbing dinner and hanging out afterwards. You got to get your rest. So I definitely dealt with it the best I could. Tried to eat with friends when I could and definitely had a lot of nights by myself eating dinner, but I did get good rest and it worked out.
Q. I want to go back to attacking. What does attacking mean to you, whether shooting at pins or making aggressive swings to safe spots or taking advantage if you have an opportunity from the middle of the fairway, just kind of run me through the mental part of attacking.
RUSSELL HENLEY: Well, I think that as you get more pressure on you in the tournament the harder it is to play free and let go a little bit and make aggressive swings. For me when I'm getting a little bit nervous, my tendency is to guide the ball a little bit, maybe help it, and not make a free swing. I remember watching Rory play at Congressional, I played that week and he beat me by a lot of shots, but he talked about the last day picking good targets and making aggressive swings to those targets.
And that's kind of what I mean. Staying aggressive with my swing and not trying to guide it or help it. So that's my biggest deal. And you can't just go out when a course is playing that accessible and think that even par is going to get it done. You got to attack all four days and you got to shoot four good scores. And that was kind of the goal and I knew not to let up.
Q. I hear there was a Russell Henley Day back in Macon this week. Did you get a report on what that was like? You still got a lot of friends back there?
RUSSELL HENLEY: I got some pictures. It was at my high school. Everybody wore like Hawaiian shirts and stuff to school. I saw some pictures. And I still know some guys who are seniors there. I keep in touch with them a little bit. It was just funny to hear them talk about it. Hopefully, next week I'm off and I can swing by there, maybe, and say hey to them and thank them. But I thought that was pretty cool, pretty special.
Q. Was there a gathering place where your family and maybe your teachers and friends gathered on Sunday to watch it and what was that party like from what you heard?
RUSSELL HENLEY: There's a lot of friends back home in Macon where I grew up who were watching it out at the country club. I think, I guess in the locker room, and then I think probably went to somebody's house or something that night, because it was on so late. And then in Charleston I got some buddies down there where I just moved and I think they were all downtown Charleston somewhere hanging out. And I just, you hear a bunch of different stuff. I don't want to know exactly what was going on, but they said like they had a ritual. Every time I made a putt they would take a drink or something, but. (Laughter.) It's just funny, it's just so much fun to hear stuff like that and know that I got people supporting me. It's a dream.
Q. I hope they didn't drive after that.
RUSSELL HENLEY: I know they didn't. They're responsible.
Q. Going back to the aggressive thing, is that a mentality that you honed on the Web.com Tour and do you think that circuit and trying to shoot as low as you can every single week is a big reason why a lot of the young players now are finding success so early on the Tour?
RUSSELL HENLEY: Well, there's a lot of reasons why. I think I definitely drew from my experience last year and having the lead and looking back and saying I should have attacked a little more, even though I did come through in Charlotte and win. But I remember watching Tiger win the Masters in '97. He talked about how his dad always said, you have to run through the finish line. Just because you get a little ahead doesn't mean you start jogging in a race.
And just growing up hearing - I mean, every interview I really ever heard growing up was pretty much or the majority were Tiger. So it's just, I think that I'm the same as a lot of people my age and close to my age growing up, and you just start to hear that mentality and I think you just feed off of it a little bit. Obviously I haven't had close to the career Tiger's had by the time he was 23, but there's a little things you feed off of people who are playing great and I try to always listen.
Q. But Tiger didn't win his first event as a Tour member either.
RUSSELL HENLEY: He's won a few since then though.
Q. With everything that's gone on, you talked about having a week off next week. Tomorrow morning you tee off in a PGA Tour event on courses that I assume you're not all that familiar with. With everything that's happened, do you feel like you're ready to go play tomorrow?
RUSSELL HENLEY: I think one more good night of sleep's going to help. I'm definitely excited to play. I'm probably not quite as well rested as I was last week, but I still have a lot of adrenaline and I'm really, really excited to go play. So I think I'm definitely ready. I feel good about the game. My coach came out here yesterday, Charles Frost, flew out here and we played a few holes on the Palmer Course and the swing feels great, putter feels great, and looking forward to another good one.
Q. Did you get a look at all three of the golf courses?
RUSSELL HENLEY: I did. I came out here for rookie orientation, rookie PGA Tour Orientation. And I played La Quinta twice and I played the Nicklaus Course. So yesterday I played the Palmer and today I'm going to, I think my caddie, Todd, wants to go out and play few holes on the Nicklaus and we're going to call it a day after that.
Q. How much did, I know you were a point guard on the basketball team in high school, how much did playing other sports sort of make you more well rounded for what you're doing now? And also, when did you make that decision and how much did your family's, them playing golf, have to do with it?
RUSSELL HENLEY: I think it was huge. If I could have played football, soccer, and tennis in high school I would have played all those too. I love team sports and I miss - I just got, I called, or my basketball coach from high school called me the other day and we talked about basketball. And he's asked me if I was more nervous during the final round the other day or when we were playing against one of our rival teams. And I said, probably when we were playing one of our rival teams. But I was just messing with him. It was huge. I think, with me, I played golf seven or eight months a year in high school and then the other four I didn't touch a club, I played basketball.
And I took basketball just as serious as golf. I would watch film and watch college teams play. I remember always watching Duke and UNC play and I tried to pick up on the way they dribble and all that. And I took it very serious. I'm obviously a lot better at golf than I am at basketball, but it was huge for me. It kept me fresh, it kept me, I couldn't wait to go back and play golf when I got done with basketball. And I think that excitement to go play is what kept my drive up and my and my love for the game up for sure.
Q. Did your dad, how much did your dad play and have an influence just on golf?
RUSSELL HENLEY: He never played.
Q. Never played?
RUSSELL HENLEY: No. My dad never played. Nobody else really played too many sports in my family. My brother plays a little bit. He's like a 10 handicap. And he caddied for me a little bit in some of the Opens I played in and stuff, but I think I'm the only one who has played in my family.
Q. Who you did you get into it?
RUSSELL HENLEY: Growing up, one of my best friends growing up, I think we were seven or eight, he took me out to the golf course with him and let me use his clubs. And his dad played at Georgia, his name is Stuart Rumph and I just fell in love with it. I just loved the difficulty and I think it definitely drove me that I was not close to the best at it when I started, and I wasn't for a bunch of years, trying to beat my friends in golf. And I think that's the biggest part is knowing I wasn't very good at it. Because everything else came pretty easy, but golf was a lot harder.
Q. So did they join the club because you were playing or did they join it or did you, were you members of that club?
RUSSELL HENLEY: I think they just took us out to a public course. There was no really I don't know who joined the country club or Idlewild Country Club in Macon is where I grew up. We joined when I was nine or 10, I think.
Q. It's not unreasonable to suggest you're probably the first in long line of young 20-somethings that could either win this year or next year. Which young player are you most impressed with and is there kind of a competitive thing going on with the young guys, not unlike what you experienced in college, playing against the same kids.
RUSSELL HENLEY: Yeah, I think that the young guy I'm most impressed with, I mean Rory's pretty impressive.
Q. Besides him.
RUSSELL HENLEY: I think somebody I'm going to think is going to have a great year is Harris English. I've been playing golf against him since I was 11. And he's just very, very impressive physically, obviously hits the ball a long way, and he can shoot low scores. He shot 62 last week on Saturday, finished top 10. He's playing great. Been playing great for a long time now. And physically what he can do with the golf ball is probably the most impressive I've seen. And mentally he's always impressed me. His perspective and his competitiveness and his toughness is just very impressive to me. I think that you're going to be seeing a lot of him for a long time.
MODERATOR: Okay. Well, thanks for your time, Russell, and good luck this week.
RUSSELL HENLEY: Thanks a lot.
The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.
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