SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Charleston's Russell Henley goes from 'nervy' to 'excited' in Masters debut
AUGUSTA — Russell Henley's first Masters tee shot on a cloudy morning went well right of the fairway. It wound up in a bunker.
His last shot Thursday was a 40-foot putt to save par on the 18th hole. The green was nearly surrounded by well-wishers.
What a 24th birthday.
Henley, a Charleston resident, gets to celebrate today at Augusta National by trying to make the cut in his Masters debut. You have to like the chances after an even-par 72 on Thursday, carded despite sundry distractions tied to any Georgia native/Masters rookie combo.
Henley woke up a few times before the 5:15 a.m. alarm went off.
That sandy welcome on No. 1.
Those unexpected greetings along the course.
The No. 1 tee box was on Henley's mind as he drove to Augusta from Charleston on Sunday night. And maybe since January at the Sony Open in Hawaii, where Henley earned the Masters invitation by becoming the first rookie since 2001 to win in his first tournament as a PGA Tour member.
“A little nervy at the start,” Henley said of his bogey-bogey beginning. “Walked on the tee box and just got chills. It just kind of hit me that I'm here. It brought memories of standing outside the ropes and guys getting announced. It was like, Whoa. I'm the one inside now and I made it. It felt really good. I had to fight off a few tears and I was ready to go.”
Watson and Mize
Whether Henley makes the cut or not, it's been quite a “Welcome to Augusta” week. On Monday, he was asked by someone in the pro shop to name a few players for an ideal practice round.
Hey, how about Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw?
He was given Watson's phone number.
“Called Tom and he called me right back two hours later and he was friendly as can be,” Henley said, “and I'll always remember that and tell my grandkids, hopefully.”
More keepsake stories unfolded Thursday.
Henley started early, with 1987 Masters champion Larry Mize and Brian Gay in the second group off the tee.
“(Henley) is solid. I really enjoyed playing with him,” Mize said. “His demeanor, his attitude, his mental game – I was very impressed. He obviously hits the ball great, and bogeying the first two holes and coming back and shooting even par is very impressive.”
A par 4 on the No. 3 hole started the steadiness. But Henley said the turning point was another 40-foot putt, at No. 1.
“I hit one right up there to about a foot to save bogey,” Henley said. “That's a really tough pin, in the back left. Especially on the very first hole you've ever played in the Masters.”
Henley saved the best for last — the crowd-pleaser at 18.
“I just told myself, 'I want to make par' and I tried to be positive,” Henley said. “Then right before the putt I told myself, 'I want to make this putt.' I just tried to reinforce some positive thoughts. When I do that, more good things happen than not.”
Henley won't be as nervous about the first shot of the second round.
He is buoyed by the last shot of the first round.
“I'm excited,” he said on his way to the clubhouse. “I'm about to go see a bunch of friends that were here and didn't tell me they were coming. But I'm ready to get back out there.”