Henley overcomes rocky start in Masters debut; Watson struggles with greens

AUGUSTA — One former Georgia golfer remained cool and collected to overcome a rocky start and another struggled with some tricky greens on Thursday in the first round of the Masters Tournament.

They just may not be the ones you’d expect.

It was PGA Tour rookie Russell Henley who bounced back from a pair of early bogeys to finish with an even-par 72 and in a tie for 33rd in his Masters debut while defending champion Bubba Watson struggled with some putts and finished with a 3-over 75 and tied for 64th.

Watson finished 4 over on Augusta National’s par 4s and a spoiled eagle attempt on the par-5 No. 15 marked one of four times he needed three putts on a hole.

“You know, it’s one of those things. Yesterday I putted really well. I putted well all the practice rounds,” Watson said. “And today — to me, the speed was a little lower, and I’m so used to some of these putts being so difficult because of the speed, and today I left them all short.”

Watson said he was not disappointed with his round, nor did he feel he played himself out of contention by finishing nine strokes behind co-leaders Marc Leishman and Sergio Garcia, who shot 6-under 66s.

“I mean, it’s golf,” said Watson, whose lone birdie came on the par-5 second hole. “There’s going to be bad days and good days. I hit the ball really well. I can’t complain about my ball striking.”

Henley’s day began as he said he imagined it would with an emotional tee time in the second group to go off Thursday.

“I walked onto the tee and just got chills with everyone clapping, and it just kind of hit me all the sudden that I’m here,” Henley said. “And it brought back memories of standing outside the ropes and looking in and guys getting announced. And it was like, ‘Whoa, I’m on the inside now and I’ve made it.’ It felt good. I had to fight off a few tears, but I did and I was ready to go.”

What happened next didn’t play out much like he dreamed, though. Henley hit his first tee shot into the right-side fairway bunker and bogeyed the first two holes.

But he birdied Nos. 8, 9 and 15 and with the help of some strong recovery shots finished the first round with an even-par 72.

“I terms of my game, I hit a lot of great shots and didn’t come away with a birdie (on some of them) today,” Henley said. “And I’m hitting the ball great, so I feel great about my game, and I feel like that’s probably what I should have shot today — a 72 — so I did get lucky on a few, but I felt pretty good about it.”

No shot made him feel better than the one that wrapped up his round. After hitting his tee shot on No. 18 into the trees lining the right side of the fairway, he was able to recover and set up a long putt to save par.

“I hit it into the trees and just kept telling myself over and over, ‘I really want to make par, I want to make par,’” said Henley, who estimated the putt to be 40 or 50 feet. “I just kept trying to think positive, and right before I walked up to my putt, I said, ‘I want to make this putt,’ and just tried to reinforce some positive thoughts.

“And when I do that, it seems more things happen good than not.”

It was the second time Henley had to overcome some adversity along the tree line. His tee shot on No. 15 landed along the left edge of the fairway with a patch of trees in front of him, and his next shot bounced off of one and caromed into the middle of the fairway without adding much distance. Henley’s next shot landed a few yards past the pin, and he sank the birdie putt.

“It was a lucky break,” Henley said of his performance on the hole. “I hit an awful punchout and got lucky. I’m going to take all the breaks I can get.”

Henley chalked up some of his early mistakes to nerves, but a par on No. 3 soothed him, and so did chatting with playing partner and 1987 Masters champion Larry Mize.

Neither Henley nor Mize would let on what they talked about, but it seemed to help Henley hone his game as the round went on.

“He was really great,” Henley said. “He was very positive and was rooting me on, and it was a blast playing with him.”

Added Mize: “We talked about different things. But I really enjoyed playing with him. He’s going to have a great career out here. He’s a good player and a good young man.”

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