AUGUSTA — By the time he sank his final putt on Wednesday, Russell Henley’s name had popped up on the leaderboard looming across from the par-3 contest’s ninth hole.
Jack Nicklaus, playing in the group ahead of him, winked at him when they passed near the final green.
And Gary Player stopped him to say he it was great to see the former University of Georgia golfer and PGA Tour rookie playing so well.
“Yeah, it kind of seems fake out here,” Henley said after shooting a 2-under 25 and finishing in a seven-way tie for eighth place while playing in a group with former Masters champion Tom Watson and amateur Nathan Smith. “It’s cool, but it feels fake.”
Henley said he is hoping experiences like that start to wear off by this morning in time for his Masters Tournament debut, when he’ll start at 8:11 a.m. in a group with Brian Gay and Larry Mize.
Gay played in the Masters in 2010 and Mize, the 1987 champion, has played in the tournament 29 times, making Henley the lone first-timer.
“I’m trying to get it all out of my system right now,” Henley said. “I’m ready to play. … I feel like I’m playing well and I’m ready to play well and ready to get out there. The whole practice rounds and stuff have been fun, but I’m ready to compete.”
In preparation for getting down to business this morning, Henley spent Wednesday afternoon in a lighter mood, joking around with older brother Adam, who caddied for him during the par-3 contest and for much of his Web.com Tour career.
“It’s cool. He’s fun,” Russell said of his brother. “He’s loose and he’s just always fun to do anything with him.”
Adam was a bit caught up in the experience, too. He said his nerves led him to forget to bring a towel with him to the first green and said he spit-shined the ball to get it clean.
“I’ve heard my brother say a couple times that just couldn’t believe some of what was happening was real, and I kind of even had that feeling today,” Adam said. “I couldn’t believe it was me out there in the white jumpsuit and that I was standing there talking to Tom Watson.”
Russell’s finish in the contest was two strokes shy of qualifying for the playoff, but Adam said the results, including a series of birdies on Nos. 3, 4 and 5, were encouraging.
“I saw him hitting some sweet zingers,” said Adam, who shared caddie duties with Sanders Walker, the 10-year-old son of a friend. “And his swing is a lot different now than when I last caddied for him. I definitely like what I’m seeing.”
Russell said he has been working out the jitters since Monday, and Adam said he believed Wednesday shook out the last of them.
“I actually think today was the perfect kind of day to have right before your first Masters round,” Adam said. “You play the back nine then cut it up a little bit in the par-3 contest. I think that’s the perfect day.”