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MASTERS: Former UGA star Henley ready for Augusta debut

Macon native and former UGA star golfer Russell Henley pumps his fist last year following his first career PGA Tour win — in his first PGA Tour start — at the Sony Open in Hawaii, qualifying him for this week’s Masters, which will be his first after growing up attending the course as a kid.

Macon native and former UGA star golfer Russell Henley pumps his fist last year following his first career PGA Tour win — in his first PGA Tour start — at the Sony Open in Hawaii, qualifying him for this week’s Masters, which will be his first after growing up attending the course as a kid.

Jonathan Heeter

MACON TELEGRAPH

MACON — Russell Henley sat alone in his Hawaiian hotel a few days before the start of his PGA Tour career in early January.

The 23-year-old had plenty of time with his thoughts. He had dinners with some golf buddies, and he found some time to play a little guitar, but he remained mostly in isolation in Honolulu in preparation for the Sony Open.

Henley had gotten used to this seclusion after spending a year barnstorming across America and four other countries as a member of the Web.com Tour, American golf’s highest level of the minor leagues.

No mom and dad. No brother. No girlfriend. No coaches or teammates. No buddies from high school.

The Macon native had his caddie Todd Gjesvold, a guitar, his thoughts and a lot of free time to fill his head with those thoughts.

Three days before the start of the tournament, someone asked Henley if he thought about the possibility of qualifying for the Masters. He needed to get into the Top 50 in the official world rankings during the next three months or win a tournament to earn an invitation to arguably the most prestigious golf tournament in the world.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it,” he said. “I probably think about the Masters at least once a day.”

Henley shot a 7-under 63 in the first round of the Sony Open, putting himself one shot off the lead. When he stepped on the grounds of Waialae Country Club, Henley’s focus remained on the tournament, and he blocked out thoughts of the Masters. But Augusta never strayed too far from his thoughts when he left the course every day.

The Stratford Academy alum entered the final round tied with his friend and former college rival at Georgia, Scott Langley, but Henley blew away his pal and the rest of the field with five birdies to close the final round for a three-shot victory. He broke the tournament scoring record by four shots and became the first PGA Tour rookie to win in his first start in 12 years.

“It was just so special to watch,” Russell’s brother Adam Henley said. “I had four hours of chill bumps. I have chill bumps right now talking about it.”

Russell kicked a leg into the air and gave a first pump after making the final putt. The fog of victory hadn’t cleared before a Golf Channel reporter asked him live about earning the Masters invitation.

His mind frayed by adrenaline and nerves, Henley didn’t remember what he said to the reporter. The realization came following the question. He was headed to Augusta.

“This is always the biggest thing,” Adam said. “This is his dream. Everything else is great. The win is great. But he’s a Georgia boy playing in the Masters. That’s everything.”

Not his first trip to Amen Corner

The traffic often backs up on Interstate 20 near Exit 199 outside of Augusta the first full week of April every year.

Cars clog Augusta’s arteries during Masters week, and it’s hard to go anywhere quickly. Spectators from around the globe flood the city, and their cars choke Washington Road, the gateway in and out of Augusta. Augusta National Golf Club sits about a mile down Washington Road from Exit 199. One of sport’s holiest cathedrals sits behind some nondescript fences splintering off beyond the main road, hidden enough that a non-local probably wouldn’t notice it the other 51 weeks of the year. That 52nd week, however, sees Augusta morph into the golf capital of the world.

The traffic logjam never deterred Maurice Barnett from making a pit stop at the Krispy Kreme on Washington Road after exiting the interstate. Barnett would grab some doughnuts for one of his twin sons who was with him — some years for Matthews or some years Madison, and a teenage Russell Henley. All three were aspiring junior golfers.

The group hopped back in the car and drove the 1.2 miles down Washington to Augusta National. Maurice Barnett handed the boys a pair of tournament badges and dropped them off near the course entrance. He would head down to Augusta Country Club for the day to hang out and watch the tournament on television.

The boys would head to paradise.

“You would have putting contests as a kid and pretend they were to win the Masters,” Matthews Barnett said. “Growing up in Georgia, there isn’t anything bigger.”

They watched the greats of the game, icons like Gary Player and Tom Watson, and the current titans of the sport, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. They found their way to Amen Corner — the moniker for the 11th, 12th and 13th holes at Augusta National — and wandered around the course to catch as much golf as possible in a day.

“I remember we would walk up to the ropes and we’d touch the grass with our hands, and I remember seeing these rolling hills of green and seeing the guys hit the shots and just being so amazed at the whole experience, the smell, the environment of it, and being so close to home, it was just the biggest deal for me just to get to go,” Henley said.

One of the Barnett twins and Henley made the trip for about five straight years, but the tradition ended abruptly when Maurice Barnett died shortly before the Masters during Henley’s junior year at Stratford. Trips to Augusta without Maurice Barnett wouldn’t be the same.

Keeping Augusta out of Henley’s head became difficult on Saturday night and Sunday morning during the Sony Open in Hawaii. Just 18 holes away from a trip to the Masters, Henley thought quite a bit about the man who introduced him to Augusta National. Maurice Barnett’s birthday happened to fall on the Sunday of the final round of the Sony Open.

“I know he was thinking about my dad,” Matthews Barnett said. “I’m sure it was a little extra motivation. We talked about it after he won. We both believe things happen for a reason.”

Henley played at Augusta National each of the four years he was at Georgia thanks to an invite for the team from an Augusta National member. The opportunities just deepened his drive to get there as a competitor, and he had little interest in watching the tournament when he felt like he could compete there.

His goal was to play on the PGA Tour, to compete with the best in the world. But his dream was to play in the Masters.

Rise and the fall

Most Macon golf observers expected Henley’s appearance in the Masters was a matter of when, not if.

He was a golfing prodigy, after all, with a list of accomplishments by 22 that most would consider a great career.

Henley won individual GISA championships at Stratford and consecutive Georgia State Amateur titles. He won seven times at Georgia, tying the program record, and never lost in match play at the NCAA golf championships. He won an SEC Championship and won the Haskins Award as the nation’s top golfer. He became the second amateur to win a Nationwide Tour event when he won the Stadion Classic at UGA in 2011. He qualified for two U.S. Opens, making the cut in both and finished tied for low amateur honors at Pebble Beach in 2010. He represented the United States on two Palmer Cup teams and on a Walker Cup team.

“You can put his amateur career up against anyone from this era,” Georgia head golf coach Chris Haack said. “He accomplished just about everything you could.”

Henley couldn’t get through PGA Qualifying School in his first try. He had a nice fallback, earning a 2012 Web.com Tour card thanks to his win at the Stadion Classic. The plan was to be on the PGA Tour, but he didn’t mind a stop on the Web.com Tour. He just needed to finish in the Top 25 to earn a PGA Tour card.

What seemed inevitable based on his amateur career, however, became cloudy with some quick struggles as a professional. Henley missed the cut in a Hooters Tour event prior to the start of the Web.com season. It turned out to be an ominous sign.

He missed the cut in the first event of his season in Colombia and eventually missed the cut in six of his first 12 events. The toughest came with a missed cut at the Stadion Classic at UGA, where he was the defending champion.

Henley said he became lost mentally and physically.

“I had the best seat in the house for so much awesome golf,” said Adam Henley, who served as his brother’s caddie through most of his amateur career and during the first half of 2012. “I’d seen him have so much success, winning the State Am and playing in the two U.S. Opens. Then to see him struggle, it was really hard. It was sort of a helpless feeling. I didn’t really know how to help him.”

Russell started working with a new swing coach. He hired Gjesvold, a caddie at Pebble Beach who came with a recommendation from some Macon friends.

Henley said things started to turn around in July when he earned his first Top 10 finish of the year in Utah in his first tournament with Gjesvold on the bag. He added another Top 10 in Omaha, Neb., a few weeks later and finished tied for second in Kansas. The real fireworks came in the final month of the season when Henley won the Chiquita Classic and the Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open in a span of three weeks to go with two other Top 10s. The victories helped Henley comfortably earn his PGA Tour card for 2013.

“The start of last year was some of the worst golf I’ve played in a while, but it was probably some of the best things that happened to me,” Henley said. “I definitely took a lot from that.”

Augusta, here he comes

Henley’s hot finish to the Web.com season made him one of the sexy picks for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. He already pushed himself back onto the radar of many golf insiders, but he jumped into the national discussion following his dominant win in Hawaii. He received a tweet from golf legend Gary Player. Eight-time major champion and 2014 Ryder Cup team captain Tom Watson told the Golf Channel he needed to pay more attention to Henley the next two years as he prepares to select his Ryder Cup team. Watson and Henley played a practice round together Monday in Augusta.

The victory granted him a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and earned him invites to some of the top events this season. A third of the way through the season, Henley still sits in the Top 10 in the season-long FedEx Cup rankings and enters the Masters as the 50th-ranked player in the world. He beat former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel in the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Arizona and added a Top 15 at the Honda Classic in south Florida. He has earned $1.33 million through nine events.

Henley knows the exemption is the biggest positive from his win in Hawaii. He no longer has to worry about where he’ll work for the next two years. He has found stability in his golf game after the rocky start in 2012 and in his life, moving into a place in Charleston, S.C., with longtime girlfriend Molly Rumph, fishing and hanging out with his buddies during his off weeks.

Unlike most of his 18 months as a professional golfer, Henley will spend this week celebrating what amounts to a home game. He’s playing his dream course in the marquee event in American golf while being surrounded by his family and friends.

“I’ve always thought, ‘I hope I don’t play my entire career and not get in (to the Masters),’ ” said Henley, who will celebrate his 24th birthday Friday. “It’s happened early in my career. I’m really looking forward to the week.”