AUGUSTA, Ga. >> Russell Henley felt his heart skip a beat during the par-3 contest on Wednesday when he got a little wink of recognition from Jack Nicklaus.
It even raced a bit after Gary Player sought him out and congratulated him on his record-setting performance at the Sony Open in Hawaii, where he became the first player since 2001 to win his opening event as a PGA Tour member.
And while these moments in time were special for the University of Georgia product, it was nothing compared to walking off the practice green Thursday morning en route to his first swing at the Masters on the No. 1 tee.
“I was OK on the practice green, but I got a chill after hearing my name and stepping up to that first tee,” Henley said after carding an opening round of even-par 72.
“I was a little nervous. I remember what it felt like to be standing outside the ropes the first time I was here. I fought back some tears. It was a lot different standing inside the ropes, that’s for sure.”
AN ERRANT tee shot resulted in a 50-foot putt for par that he just missed, settling for a bogey 5.
Another bogey at the par-5 second had Henley reeling, but a big par save at No. 3 righted the ship.
From there, Henley picked up a couple of birdies at Nos. 8 and 9 to make the turn at even par. He survived Amen Corner, birdieing the par-5 15th despite hitting a pine tree square with his second shot.
“I got a little lucky there,” Henley conceded. He sank a 15-footer for birdie to go to 1 under for his round. “But I played well. I wanted to stay on a positive note the rest of the way.”
HENLEY MADE IT tough on himself with a three-putt bogey, despite standing in the middle of the 17th fairway after his drive. A bad tee shot into the pines at the 18th resulted in a 45-footer for par. He made it with plenty of family and friends on hand to cheer him on.
Throughout the round, the South Carolina resident acknowledged friends standing outside the ropes.
Their positive energy had a lot to do with Henley remaining on the neutral side of the scoring ledger.
“I really wanted that par putt to go in; to do something positive at the last,” Henley said.
He was standing on the bottom tier of the 18th green, too far away to see the hole. Henley gave it a solid rap and it remained steady and true as it climbed the hill toward the cup. The ball was traveling so fast, when it hit the hole it popped straight into the air before plopping in for a routine par.
“That was big for me,” Henley said. “It gives me some confidence going into (today’s) round. You want to end on a positive note when you can. I’m so excited. I can’t wait to get back out there tomorrow.
“It all seems kind of like fate out here. The coolest thing so far was Jack Nicklaus asking me how’s it going. It’s pretty special. I thought I got everything out of my system after Wednesday’s par-3 contest. But I was still jittery today. It’s so special to be here.”
Even more so if Henley can celebrate his 24th birthday by making the cut. He enters today’s second round tied for 33rd, with the top 50 and ties playing on through the weekend.
“That’s the goal,” Henley said. “It would be the best birthday present ever. Celebrating with all my friends who came to see me would make it even better.”
Reach Paul Arnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 529-4786.