Russell Henley made a lasting impression in his rookie debut on the PGA Tour with a record-setting performance today in the Sony Open.
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.
He closed with five straight birdies for a 7-under 63, finally showing emotion with a sweeping uppercut when his 8-foot putt disappeared into the cup.
He won by three shots over Tim Clark, who birdied seven of his last 11 holes and only made up one shot on the rookie from Georgia.
Henley finished at 24-under 256, breaking by four shots the Sony Open scoring record last set by Brad Faxon in 2001.
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 record.
Henley 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.
For all the birdies Henley made, the biggest putt might have been for par. Henley was two shots ahead of Langley and Clark when he pulled his tee shot on the 12th hole and did well to hit a punch shot through the green, followed by a downhill pitch to 10 feet. He made the putt look easy, and two holes later, he poured in a 45-foot birdie putt that sent him on his way. Except for the 18th, his last four birdie putts were all 12 feet or longer.
He 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 shot over a row of royal pines to 12 feet and turned trouble into a birdie. And when he made an 18-foot birdie on the 17th hole, Clark could only laugh.
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. But he missed three birdie putts from about 5 feet on the front nine.
One of those came at No. 6, which looked as if it might be a two-shot swing. Henley clipped the fronds of three palm trees and came up short, and then pitched 15 feet long. Langley was in tight for birdie. Henley rolled in his par putt with about a foot of break, and Langley missed.
Two holes later, Henley’s streak of 50 straight holes without a bogey ended when he pulled another tee shot. Langley again was in tight and missed that putt.
In between, Langley decelerated on another chip and moved that only a few feet, leading to another bogey.
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. But that’s as close as anyone got.
No one else came particularly close. Charles Howell III, 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.