Another big moment, a bigger stage for Russell Henley

HONOLULU — Russell Henley has delivered big moments before, just not to this degree, and certainly not on this kind of a stage.

Marco Garcia/AP
Russell Henley, a former UGA golfer, holds the trophy after winning the Sony Open on Sunday in Honolulu.

Not even three months after he celebrated getting a PGA Tour card, Henley made his rookie debut with a three-shot win Sunday in the Sony Open that will not be forgotten anytime soon because of the sheer numbers.

He birdied the last five holes to shatter the tournament scoring record by four shots.

His score of 24-under 256 was the second-lowest in PGA Tour history for a 72-hole event, two shots behind Tommy Armour III in 2003 at the Texas Open.

He set the Sony Open record for the 36-hole score (126), shared the 54-hole tournament record with fellow rookie Scott Langley (193) and set another tournament record with the lowest closing round by a champion at 7-under 63.

About the only time he looked like a rookie was when he walked off the 18th green and said, “I don’t really know what happened.”

What he did was play some really good golf and rode a putting stroke that was pure over four days at Waialae Country Club.

He made 26 birdies — 18 of them on the par 4s, the most at this tournament in the last 30 years — and a collection of pars equally important. Henley, a 23-year-old from Georgia, made a 15-foot par putt with a foot of break on the sixth hole, and another par putt from 10 feet on the 12th hole to stay two shots clear of Langley and Tim Clark.

The rest was simply a blur. The final hour began with a 45-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole, and of his last four birdies, the only one inside 10 feet was on the 18th hole. Henley punched the air with a sweeping uppercut, the first time all day he allowed himself to think about winning and all that goes with it — particularly that trip to the Masters.

“It’s been my goal to make it to the Masters my whole life,” he said. “I’m kind of speechless right now.”

Clark played in the last group, closed with a 63 and still finished three shots behind. He made seven birdies over his last 11 holes and only made up one shot on Henley.

“I gave it all I had, and he just played phenomenal,” Clark said, a runner-up for the second time in three years at the Sony Open.

“He just never seemed to put a foot wrong, and when he did, he made those par putts,” he said. “That’s when you know a guy is comfortable, when he’s making those 8- to 10-footers 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.”

Clark knew enough about Henley that this wasn’t a total surprise.

Henley tied for low amateur — with Langley — in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. A year later, he won a Nationwide Tour event while still at Georgia. And in his first year on the developmental tour, he won twice with clutch moments. He won his first Web.com Tour event by going from a fairway bunker into the water and making a 10-foot bogey putt to get into a playoff. He won a few weeks later by making a 20-foot birdie putt on the last hole to force another playoff.

“I’ve been in this situation a lot the last five or six tournaments,” he said.

Henley became the first player to win in his debut as a PGA Tour rookie since Garrett Willis in the 2001 Tucson Open. That was played opposite the winners-only Mercedes Championships at Kapalua, so it wasn’t a strong field. The Sony Open was the first full-field event of the year, featuring five Ryder Cup players.

“First pro PGA event, it’s pretty cool to see him doing so well,” Matt Kuchar said.

Henley walked into his news conference with two leis draped around his neck as he stared into his phone, talking on Face Time with his mother, Sally. He came to Hawaii on his own, and lamented that he had a lot of meals by himself.

That’s about how he looked at times at Waialae. No one was around him.

Langley, tied for the lead at the start of the round, fell back quickly. He went over the back of the green into rough that made him wonder if his pitch shot would come out hot, and instead it didn’t come close to reaching the green. He made bogey as Henley hit his approach into 3 feet for a birdie and a two-shot swing.

Langley three times missed birdie putts from 5 feet on the front nine, though he still was only two shots behind. He just couldn’t keep pace. Langley closed with two birdies for a 70 to tie for third with Charles Howell III, who had a 66.

“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.”

Howell, twice a runner-up at the Sony Open, had his lowest score ever at Waialae and was seven shots behind.

“Russell didn’t falter one bit,” Howell said.

Henley hasn’t done anything wrong in about four months. In his past five tournaments dating to the 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.

There’s no telling where this will lead him. Thanks to his play on the Web.com Tour last year — No. 3 on the money list and two wins — Henley goes to No. 50 in the world. His win puts him in the Masters, PGA Championship, The Players Championship and the Bridgestone Invitational. And at No. 50 in the world and tied for the top of the FedEx Cup standings, he’s likely to get into the next two World Golf Championships — the Match Play at the end of February, Doral in early March.

Not bad for his rookie debut in the big leagues.

“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.

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