AUGUSTA - Russell Henley turns 25 on Saturday. Ideally, the guitar-playing boating enthusiast would like to celebrate his birthday the same way he spent much of Thursday - competing in the world's greatest golf tournament with old college friends cheering from behind the ropes.
Henley and former University of Georgia teammate Harris English played together in the first round of the 78th Masters tournament, much to the delight of fans dressed in red and black.
"Go Bulldogs!" shouts were heard from the first hole through a trying late afternoon in the darkest part of Amen Corner.
"I wish I had a dollar for every one of them. I'd be a millionaire," said Henley, who moved to Charleston in 2012 and now lives on Kiawah Island.
Henley, playing in his second Masters, finished with a 1-over par 73. He's five shots off the lead held by Greenville's Bill Haas.
An easy smile reveals a much more confident Henley than the guy who missed the Masters cut last April after shooting 72-81.
"I'm in better shape, I feel like I'm a little sharper mentally, I feel like I have a little more experience," Henley said. "I'm a little more patient, and I'm a little less emotional. I think all those add up."
Amen Corner torment
If knowledge gained from Augusta National experience and an extra year on tour pays off, it's likely to come on Friday. That's when things tend to fall apart over second-round stretches of notoriously sticky shots and slick greens. The course will test most everything Henley has in his red and white Nike bag adorned with a Kiawah Island Club logo.
A thorny brush with Amen Corner - the storied gauntlet of holes Nos. 11, 12 and 13 - could have been much worse for Henley on Thursday. Henley had to blast his third shot at No. 13 out of the signature azalea backdrop just left of the green on the par 5 hole.
Slipping the ball through a pair of pines and jumping over bushes to get to the green, Henley managed to scramble for a bogey.
His only birdie came on No. 15, a 530-yard par 5.
"I hit an awesome drive and an awesome 4-iron - the wind didn't touch it," Henley said. "And then I had a really nice putt from off the green to within a couple feet and knocked it in. I had to work for it a little bit, but that's what this course makes you do."
'Like a dream'
Five former Bulldogs are in the Masters field. Chris Kirk and Patrick Reed join Henley, English and Bubba Watson, the 2012 Masters champion. The players benefited from Georgia coach Chris Haack's rigid policy forcing all Bulldog golfers had to qualify for tournaments each week, with only top 10 finishes gaining automatic entry the next week.
Georgia coaches walked the course Thursday, commenting loudly and proudly.
"It was cool," said Henley, who wore gray pants and a light pink shirt to go with his pink and white shoes. "It didn't quite feel like it was real. Playing Augusta and playing with Harris, and we had our coaches watching and hollering at us. It was kind of like a dream. It was a lot of fun. I wish it was like that every week."
Henley already has won two PGA tournaments, qualifying for the Masters this year with a win at the Honda Classic on March 2 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. A Consumer Economics major, he knows that his $3,452,220 earnings on the PGA tour - look who's already a millionaire - translate into a good career start.
Making it to a birthday Saturday at the Masters, he said, would be a dream come true.
"But I have a long way to go before that," Henley said. "Either way, I'll have my family around and I'll get to celebrate with them."
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff
Russell Henley hits out of a bunker on the 10th hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 10, 2014, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)×
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