Golf

Defending Honda Classic champ Russell Henley humble despite fast start to career

Russell Henley acknowledges the fans after making a birdie putt on the fourth hole during the final round of the Phoenix Open golf tournament, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Russell Henley acknowledges the fans after making a birdie putt on the fourth hole during the final round of the Phoenix Open golf tournament, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015, in Scottsdale, Arizona. AP

If he wasn’t so level-headed, defending Honda Classic champion Russell Henley might think winning on the PGA Tour is not that difficult.

After all, in his first PGA Tour event, the 2013 Sony Open in Hawaii, Henley won with a 24-under-par 256 score, the second-best four-round score in PGA history. Then, last year, he added the Honda Classic as his second PGA Tour triumph.

Henley is too smart, and knows golf all too well, to read too much into his successful career start.

“Golf is a very humbling game,” he said, “so it’s very easy to keep a level head.”

And that’s what Henley will try to do Thursday as the 2015 Honda Classic gets underway on the Champion Course at PGA National Resort & Spa.

A year ago, Henley — a University of Georgia graduate — eked out his Honda triumph in a four-way playoff with Rory McIlroy, Ryan Palmer and Russell Knox by making birdie on the first playoff hole. All four golfers in the playoff stumbled and staggered down the stretch on the finishing holes at PGA National, which includes the infamous Bear Trap consisting of holes No. 15, 16 and 17.

In last year’s crash-and-burn finish, the playoff foursome recorded a combined total of three double-bogeys and five bogeys on the back nine.

It wasn’t golf at its finest — just at its most dramatic.

Even Tiger Woods provided a subplot, walking off the course after 13 holes in that final round with an injured back while being hopelessly out of contention.

Most of the usual suspects — McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose among them — will be back this year with sixteen of the top 25 pros in the world competing at Honda.

There is one notable exception. Woods’ back is hurting again and he will not compete at Honda or next week’s World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship at Doral since he did not qualify for that event.

At age 25, Henley becomes part of the new breed in golf, but he quickly protests that the old breed should not be buried quite yet.

“You look at say Jim Furyk or Phil Mickelson, I feel those guys have had the same game for their whole careers,” Henley said. “They do some things incredibly well. Obviously, they both have amazing short games.

“I think Jim Furyk, when I’ve played with him, he keeps the ball in front of him all the time. He manages his game.”

And Henley admitted he is still learning by watching the likes of Furyk and Mickelson.

“I think one of the biggest changes I’ve made is my course management out here,” Henley said.

However, Henley did add that power and strength are important to success.

“I feel like it’s definitely turned into more of a power game, for sure,” he said.

One might mistakenly think McIlroy, ranked the world’s No. 1 player for the past 69 weeks, belongs with the old-timers and doesn’t fit in with the new upstarts on tour.

That’s just because McIlroy has been so good for so long, but in reality Henley and McIlroy are both 25.

Of his No. 1 status and being the face of current golf, McIlroy said, “That’s the position I want to be in, and I want to be in it for a long time.”

McIlroy and Henley both agree that the Honda course, and the Bear Trap in particular, can be extremely difficult, but both look forward to it.

“Those holes are really visually intimidating,” Henley said, “but it is a blast playing the Bear Trap.”

McIlroy called the Bear Trap “brutal,” but then added, “I can see myself shooting scores here. I can see 63, 64, 65 out there.”

Honda classic

When: Thursday through Sunday.

Where: PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens.

Purse: $6.1 million ($1,098,000 to the winner).

Course: Champion Course, par 70 at 7,110 yards.

Defending champion: Russell Henley (64-68-68-72--271). Henley won with a birdie on the first hole of a four-way playoff with Rory McIlroy, Ryan Palmer and Russell Knox.

Others to watch: Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Jim Furyk, Rickie Fowler, Martin Kaymer, Brooks Koepka, Graeme McDowell, Dustin Johnson, Erik Compton, Zach Johnson, Patrick Reed.

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