Russell Henley shot 63, 63, 67 through the first three rounds of the Sony Open in Hawaii that seemed like he was on cruise control. Playing with his good friend and fellow rookie, Scott Langley, it seemed inevitable that one of the two of them would win.
Langley had the lead the first day, Henley the second and they were all tied up after the third. The only imminent threat was South African, Tim Clark, but he was three strokes back.
Henley went on to capture the day on Sunday with another effortless 63 to win by three over Clark’s equally impressive 63. Langley’s putting magic from the first three days vanished and he could only manage a 70 (finishing birdie, birdie to do that), sliding seven shots behind his friend into a T3 with Charles Howell III.
First of all, it’s not supposed to be possible for a PGA Tour rookie playing in his first event to shoot 7-under par 63 in the final round to win that event. They shoot the 63 in the first round and then try to hang on for dear life in the final round, almost always unsuccessfully. This was not that by a long shot.
He birdied right out of the box on the first hole; it relaxed him. Relaxed him enough that he posted six straight pars until the bogey on the 8th.
Kicking his streak off on the par-5 9th that everybody was making birdie on, he did too. Before he was done, he made birdie on seven of the ten closing holes including five in a row from 14 through 18.
He did this with an incredible string of one-putts that seemed to just get sucked into the hole; none of them looked out of the center of the hole.
Throughout the entire round, he looked completely nonplussed, almost as if he was playing a practice round by himself. He was up and alert and looking around, but we never saw a smile from him until Langley sidled up to him on the way up the 18th fairway. As soon as Langley peeled off to hit his third shot, Henley’s poker face came back.
There was nothing stern or effortful or contrived about this poker face, it was just neutral. It was as it would be if he was engrossed in a good book. That’s what it looked like to the outside world.
But that’s not what was going on with him:
It felt pretty hard. Yeah, that was definitely 10 times as nervous as I’ve ever been. I was just trying to stick to my routine and stay committed and stay in the present.
So, (1) sticking to his pre-shot routine, (2) deciding what he wanted to do with each shot and not bailing out somewhere in the swing and (3) keeping his head in the game and not letting his mind drift to the import of the moment or the victory ceremony on the 18th green.
Those five closing birdie putts in a row were what his round will probably be most remembered for. It was astounding, particularly since he didn’t really need the 8-footer on 18.
Yeah, you know, that was just me trying to focus on my routine and letting the shot go and not trying to guide it or help it, and that’s kind of one of the tendencies I have under pressure. Just trying to play free golf.
Ah, free golf. (1) Focus on the pre-shot routine, (2) let the shot go and (3) do not try to guide it or help it.
In practicing to get better, it is probably more important to feel that “letting go” of the shot. But the way you get there is by catching yourself guiding and helping it.
Nowhere is that easier to do than with little chip shots and pitch shots. They are small and relatively slower shots; they’re all right in front of you, the club doesn’t get out of sight above your head; and the target is close at hand and easier to keep in your consciousness.
The best outcome of such a short game practice would be to catch yourself guiding and helping the shot. And then, once you do, to notice its gradual dissipation as you merely pay attention to it. As always, it helps if your intention is on the targets; the hole and the spot you want the shot to land. Because, as always, it’s the target that orders everything. These principles apply to putting as well.
And once you can feel freedom in the short game, you can begin to watch for guiding and helping in the full swing where there’s a lot more going on…and finally to feel freedom there too.
At least that’s what Russell Henley masterfully accomplished to win his first PGA Tour event.
And he did that by remaining in the present.