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Henley gets PGA Tour career off to record start

(AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

By DOUG FERGUSON


Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) Russell Henley only felt like a rookie at the Sony Open.

He sure didn't play like one.

He was so nervous Sunday afternoon that he couldn't feel his arms and legs, and everything around him seemed to be moving at warp speed.

Only when he finished his record-setting performance with one last birdie did he realize what happened. And even then, he didn't know what to say.

The first player in 10 years to win in his debut as a PGA Tour rookie.

The second-best score for a 72-hole tournament in PGA Tour history, and a record score at the Sony Open by four shots.

Finishing with five straight birdies - only one of them inside 10 feet - for a 29 on the back nine and a 7-under 63, the lowest finish by a Sony Open winner.

And yes, that tee time reserved for him at the Masters in April.

"I'm pretty speechless," Henley said. "I was trying not to think about Augusta out there because I just kept telling myself, `This is a long year, you're going to play this game a long time, and be patient, it doesn't have to happen now.' Everything I could to psyche myself out of thinking about winning. It worked."

The back nine was simply surreal.

Henley won by three shots over Tim Clark, who birdied seven of his last 11 holes and still made up only one shot on the rookie from Georgia.

"When you get up close and watch a guy play ... if that's how he putts all the time, whew! It's over," Clark said.

And it was.

Tied for the lead with fellow rookie Scott Langley to start the final round, Henley seized control with a birdie on the opening hole and then poured it on at the end.

Henley had a two-shot lead with seven holes to play when he calmly sank a 10-foot par putt on the 12th, and he began to pull away with a 45-foot birdie putt on the 14th.

When the rookie rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt on the 17th to stay three shots ahead, Clark started laughing. There wasn't anything else he could do.

"He just never seemed to put a foot wrong, and when he did, he made those par putts," Clark said. "That's when you know a guy is comfortable, when he's making those 8- to 10-footer for par. But I still got on the 15th hole and said, `Well, let's finish with four birdies and see what happens.' And sure enough, he birdied the last four, too. When a guy plays that well and beats you, you just have to be happy for them."

Henley finished at 24-under 256, breaking by four shots the Sony Open scoring record held by Brad Faxon in 2001 and John Huston in 1998. It was the second-lowest score for a 72-hole tournament in PGA Tour history, two shots behind Tommy Armour III in 2003 at the Texas Open.

And that wasn't the only mark Henley left on Waialae Country Club. He set tournament records for the low 36-hole score after his 63-63 start, he shared the 54-hole record with Langley and set another tournament record with the lowest final round by a champion.

Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

He became the first PGA Tour rookie to win his debut since Garrett Willis in the 2001 Tucson Open, which was held the same week as the winners-only event in Kapalua. And the way he putts, there's no telling where this will lead.

For starters, the 23-year-old from Macon, Ga., can add a local event to his schedule - he's going to the Masters in April.

"I don't really know what happened, honestly," Henley said. "This is the most nervous I've ever been. That's the hardest thing I've ever done. It's been my goal to make it to the Masters my whole life. I'm kind of speechless right now."

He then acknowledged his parents and his girlfriend, watching from home. Henley spent his first week as a tour member on his own, and that's about how he looked on Sunday at Waialae Country Club. No one was particularly close to him.

Clark, finally feeling healthy after a mysterious elbow injury after his runner-up finish at the Sony Open in 2011, shot 63. Charles Howell III closed with a 66 to tie for third with Langley, who birdied his last two holes for a 70.

"I wish I would have played a little bit better today and made some more putts," said Langley, who missed three birdie putts of 5 feet on the front nine. "But Russell played so awesome. I don't even know if I could have caught him."

Henley only looked to be in big trouble when he hooked his tee shot well left on the 16th, flirting with out of bounds.

No problem. He hammered a pitching wedge from 160 yards over a large tree and a row of royal pines to 12 feet and turned trouble into a birdie.

On the strength of his Web.com season last year - two wins and No. 3 on the money list - the win allowed Henley to crack the top 50 in the world ranking.

That should be enough to get him into the Match Play Championship for the top 64 in the world, with the qualifying date only a month away, and he should be set for the other WGC at Doral. The win qualifies him for Firestone in August, along with the PGA Championship.

Not bad for his PGA Tour debut.

Then again, the Georgia kid has been on a roll. In his past five tournaments dating to end of September - four of those on the Web.com Tour - Henley is 73-under par. His scoring average in those five events is 67.15.

Henley seized control immediately with an approach that barely cleared the bunker and settled 3 feet away for birdie. For Langley, it was a struggle from the start. He went over the green and into the rough with a lie that looked as if it might jump on him.

Instead, he decelerated and moved it only about 10 feet, chipped to 5 feet and watched the bogey putt swirl into the cup. At least that one went in.

Despite falling two behind after one hole, Langley had ample opportunity to make up ground, except that his stroke was quick and he missed short birdie chances.

When they made the turn, Henley had a two-shot lead.

Clark got in the game by running off three straight birdies around the turn to get within two shots.

No one else came particularly close. Howell, twice a runner-up at the Sony Open, made a 15-foot eagle putt on the ninth to get within one shot, but only as long as it took Henley to two-putt for birdie on the ninth and smash a drive on the 10th that set up a pitch-and-putt birdie.

Pat Perez and Matt Kuchar also put themselves in good position in case Henley was to fold. That never materialized, and never looked as if it even would - not with that putting stroke. Henley had 33 one-putt greens for the tournament, seven of them over the final nine holes.

"I can't imagine what people at home watching this tournament saw," Clark said. "That's kind of what we were feeling out there."

Updated January 14, 2013

? © 2014 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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