Russell Henley: Anatomy of His Honda Classic Win

I think it’s still true that the best finish this year so far was the 5-hole playoff between Jason Day and the French escape artist, Victor Dubuisson, at the Accenture Match Play Championship last week.

But the drama at the Honda Classic this week that ended with a four-way playoff between Russell Henley, Rory McIlroy, Russell Knox and Ryan Palmer was pretty good too.

Overnight leader, Rory McIlroy, began at 12-under with a 2-shot lead over Russell Henley at 10-under. Russell Knox was a stroke back of him at 9-under. And Ryan Palmer was one of four players, 5 strokes back at 7-under.

Given all of the optimistic things they all had to say after Saturday’s round, it was inconceivable that they would all end up at 8-under. McIlroy was playing like the well-oiled machine he once was and seemed within arm’s reach again. 

Henley, by his own admission, who relaxed too much after his first win in his first Tour event as a professional in Hawaii, had spoken about how he finally recognized that and worked so hard to get himself back up on the top rungs.

Russell Knox was very upbeat over the fact that he was just “right there,” had been playing great and had a chance to finally win his first tournament.

Ryan Palmer has made a very nice living with steady play since his last win over four years ago at the 2010 Sony Open, but he didn’t seem like the player among the four at 7-under who would break out, Keegan Bradley did. But of the four in the playoff, he was the only one who shot under par for the day which included two late bogeys on 16 and 18.

McIlroy got a case of he “lefts” on the front and surprisingly, didn’t play well down the stretch ballooning to 4-over 74. Knox tried to press on a shot in a tree well, it hit the lip and ricocheted straight right and into a pond. Henley makes a chip-in birdie on 14 and then dumps his tee ball on the par-3 15th woefully short in that pond.

And as all of these uncharacteristic mishaps began to pile up and converge down to the 18th hole, we suddenly had the four of them in a playoff nobody saw coming.

In the end, Henley prevailed because he hit a beautiful 5-wood into the center of the par-5 18th green for eagle and came away with a winning birdie. It was really something, even to Henley, and what he pointed to is how confidence can come from the oddest places:

Yeah, this doesn’t feel real.  This is not exactly what I was expecting at the start of the week.  I knew I was playing well, and played — this sounds funny.  Played really well at Riviera on Friday and almost made the cut.  I went from almost last to having a putt on the last hole to make the cut, and I don’t know, for some reason that gave me a lot of confidence going into this week.  That’s really all it takes I think.

He had no idea that it would go the way it did either. He thought the winning score would be higher, but he was focused more on his process.

I thought it would be in the teens and I didn’t know what the course was going to be like and thought it was going to firm up and the pin locations would be tough.  I try not to focus on a number so much as I did my attitude and how I enjoyed the day.  I really tried to, whatever happens, really enjoy it and just get better from it.  I think I did that.

Part of his process is to finally be back in contention at the end, but more so, to realize that the other guys at the top of the leaderboard have all been playing well too. That simple fact adds to the pressure.

Well, for me, I haven’t been there in a while.  Not to mention playing against Rory and his game is just — you know, it’s so good, it’s so fun to watch, and you can tell he just looked very comfortable.

Obviously didn’t get what he wanted out of today but he just looks very comfortable and I think it was really tough for me knowing I had all these guys playing really well.

And I think the hardest thing is kind of trying to remember back to where I’ve had a lot of pressure on me and not to mention the wind changed pretty much every day.

Definitely had a lot of adrenaline after I chipped in on 14 going into the Bear Trap, so that probably didn’t help that 6‑iron [in the water on 15].

Early on the back nine, Henley had a meeting of the minds with his caddie and that set the stage for the belief that he could pull this off:

I almost made a par on 12.   Thought I hit a pretty good putt.  While Rory was putting, Ace told me, let’s hit some fairways, let’s hit some greens, and let’s just give ourselves some good chances coming in because we’re still in this.

You know, he didn’t necessarily have to say that but it felt good to know that we’re kind of on the same page.  I went to 13 and hit a great drive down the right side and had a really good number and trust it and hit the exact shot I wanted to hit into the green and just stayed real committed to my putt and made that.

That gave me a lot of confidence going into the next couple holes, even though I was still, you know, not exactly comfortable because I haven’t been there in a while.

I embraced it the best I could, and then I went to 14. The chip, I just kind of felt like I was going to make it.  I know that sounds kind of weird but I really thought I was going to make it.  It felt like it was really good and I felt like I hit that chip a million times or a hundred million times or whatever.

The swing on 15 [that he hit in the pond], I didn’t really see coming.  I felt really good over that 6‑iron and when I let it go, I looked up it and it was kind of fading and I was a little bit shocked at that.  I knew that I was just going to hang in there no matter what happened, and so I wasn’t going to let it bother me.

After driving it in the rough on 16 and playing a terrific, 224-yard, 4-iron to the green, he was infused with still more confidence:

And then once I realized I was pretty close to the lead, I just tried to commit to the targets that Ace and I agreed on and made the best swings I could.

Even after all of that, McIlroy had a 12-footer on 18 to win and it was shocking to Henley:

I just for some reason, it kind of dawned on me a little bit, my attitude was really good the whole day and watching him have that putt to win, it wasn’t a very comfortable feeling.  I think I was just kind of shocked that I kind of let it get to that point.

I still just tried to hang in there the best I could and not let my emotions get too up or down no matter what happened on his putt.

In the afterglow of his victory, he took time to reflect on why he hasn’t been in contention all that much since his initial win. His answer goes directly to the fragility of a Tour-quality game and how it has to constantly be nurtured:

Well, I think there’s probably a lot of things that kept me out of contention.  One, it was my rookie year on Tour.

I think it was a lot to deal with after I won.  I think I played in the Masters, played in all the majors, played in all the WGCs, and I don’t know that I was really prepared to do all that mentally.

I don’t remember being really into the practicing as much as I am now, and I think I just wasn’t ready for it.  I think I’ve definitely grown a lot since then, and hopefully after this win, I can be a little bit more consistent, but obviously that’s always the goal.

Ever wonder what the players in the last groups do before for they come out to the course for their early afternoon tee times? Henley runs down his itinerary after Saturday’s round:

Came [into the Media Center] and talked to you guys a little bit. And then I went and hit some balls, half a bucket of balls to wind down a little bit and keep working on some things I’m working on and some fundamentals.

Went back and went out to eat, quick dinner.  Went home and texted and called a couple of my good friends back home.

Woke up this morning around 6:00 really excited to play, and somehow managed to go back to sleep till about 8:00, so I was really happy about that.  I had to literally force myself and take deep breaths (laughs). Got some good sleep.

Picked up my brother and his friend and we went to the mall and walked around a little bit.  I went to the gym and warmed up and then had some lunch and came out.   That’s pretty much it.

And finally, he was asked to amplify a little bit on his missed cut at Riviera and how that played such a large part in his improved play and confidence:

You know, I took the momentum from that Friday into this week for sure.  I got some really good people around me that have been helping motivate me and tell me to keep working hard.  And I think that’s why you never give up no matter how far — I think I was last or second to last place going into Friday, and I knew I had been working hard on my game.

I knew I had probably been working on the right stuff, and I just said, you know what, I’m just going to play golf today and hit it hard. And for some reason, I [mistakenly] convinced myself the first four weeks that I was all of a sudden going to start not missing any shots and hitting it perfect all the time, and every day was going to be the same.

That’s something that I used to always know that every day, I feel a little different, and you just have to go with whatever you feel.  I just said, I was going to swing hard, swing aggressive and go chase it.  Had a really nice round there, almost made the cut, and it sounds funny, but that gave me a lot of confidence to know I could go from last place, basically, to almost making the cut.

I just kind of rode that confidence into this week.

As you can see, a lot went into this stretch leading up to this win and into the win itself. Now that Henley has been able to restore his sharp competitiveness, it will be interesting to see how he manages that for the rest of the season, particularly with the Ryder Cup coming up at its end.

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