Russell Henley made a dramatic chip and putt on the 18th hole there to win in 2011, and while still a University of Georgia student, proved he could play with the best.
First-year pro Hudson Swafford capped a course-record round of 9-under 62 on the same hole a year later, holing out from the sand to earn his first professional victory a year after he played the role of caddie at the tournament while still in school.
No tournament has been quite as hospitable to the Bulldogs as the Stadion Classic at UGA, which returns to Athens this week with six former and two current Bulldogs golfers in the field hoping to once again capture lightning in a bottle on their old stomping grounds.
“There is just something special for all the Georgia guys here every year,” Georgia men’s golf coach Chris Haack said. “Just having all those Georgia guys in contention every year and getting that fan support out there, people cheering them on, it just makes it a lot more fun for everybody. I know that over the last two years, watching both those guys win, it gave me goose bumps out there.”
Golf’s minor leagues — the Stadion Classic at UGA is part of the Web.com Tour, previously the Nationwide Tour — have been kind to the Bulldogs over the years with alumni such as Bubba Watson, Chris Kirk and Harris English paving their way to full-fledged PGA Tour status there.
Victories on the tour have given careers the boosts they needed to step up a level. Look no further than Henley for proof. The 24-year-old Macon native was hardly an unknown entering the tournament but has said the victory was a pivotal moment in his career. He had won the 2010 Southeastern Conference individual championship, was named the recipient of the Fred Haskins Award as the most outstanding collegiate golfer and finished 16th as an amateur in that year’s U.S. Open.
But the tournament victory, which came during his finals week, saw him do something only one other golfer had done to that point — win a Nationwide Tour event as an amateur.
Henley then went undefeated in the NCAA championships later that month (Georgia finished runner-up to Augusta State) and played on the U.S. Walker Cup and Palmer Cup teams before turning pro.
And aside from a brief dip — Henley missed six cuts, including at the 2012 Stadion Classic, in his first dozen events as a rookie — he finished the season with one of the tour’s most impressive runs. He won twice and had seven top-10 finishes in his final 13 events, finishing third on the money list and earning a PGA Tour card.
Henley then went on to win the Sony Open in Hawaii, his first event as a PGA Tour member, and earned a spot at the Masters, where he missed the cut. He followed up his Masters debut with a fifth-place finish a week later at RBC Heritage at Hilton Head, S.C.
“I really do think that spending a year out here on the Web.com Tour helped Russell make that transition,” Georgia men’s golf coach Chris Haack said. “I think these guys that do this, it just helps them make the transition to the next level. Some will make it with no problem, but the majority, this really helps them get prepared for that.”
Henley has said he is grateful for the victory, even if it sent him on a path to the PGA Tour that came with its own set of hurdles.
“It happened pretty fast,” Henley, who could not be reached for an interview, said at the Masters. “Sometimes I wish I would have eased into it a little more because it kind of blew up in my face a little bit, and I feel like a lot of that, my inconsistency afterwards, had to do with getting used to it. But I’m doing the best I can and trying to learn every day.”
Swafford has yet to break through to the PGA Tour — he finished two spots and less than $3,000 shy of qualifying via the money list last year — but said his victory marked a turning point in his career.
“It’s great that, mentally and physically, you know you can compete with these guys on tour,” Swafford said. “You won. You definitely can compete, and so now you can just go out there and take a chance every week.”
Coming off back-to-back missed cuts, Swafford said he hopes to find some consistency this month as the tour takes him through some familiar territory in Georgia. It appears he has found some of it as he led the South Georgia Classic in Valdosta through two rounds on Friday.
“I’m really looking forward to this Georgia stretch starting in Valdosta,” Swafford said Wednesday. “I started a little slow this year, but I really like this stretch and I feel like I’m starting to play good. I’m definitely looking forward to the next two weeks.”
Swafford said he has only visited Athens a few times since he won here last year but was hopeful he’ll feel right at home once again.
“I’m looking forward to getting back because I love that course and I love that city,” Swafford said. “… It really provided a big stepping stone for my career, getting my first win in my backyard and where I played college golf. It was just kind of surreal, and it was the biggest week of my career. And for it to happen in Athens and at that golf course, I couldn’t have picked a better spot to win.”
“I definitely can’t wait to be back there again.”