Henley opts for new, carefree Masters approach

Russell Henley chips to the second green during the second round of the Masters golf tournament Friday, April 11, 2014, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Russell Henley won his way into his first Masters in 2013, and the Charleston resident made the cut at Augusta National in 2014. Next step: Sunday afternoon contender.

So it’s time to get usefully intense, right?

Not exactly.

“The less that I care, the better I play,” Henley said, when asked about his strategy for next week.

Which is to say the former University of Georgia golfer is serious about playing his best golf as fans shout “Go Dawgs!” on every hole.

It’s a thoughtful carefree approach, complete with post-2014 Masters facial hair.

“The first year was a little bit overwhelming for me and the second year I realized how I needed to treat the week,” said Henley, who turns 26 on Masters Sunday. “It was just so over-hyped. I play golf tournaments almost every week. I just want to go in there, try to enjoy the week and not put so much expectation on myself.”

Henley got off to a fast 2015 start. He tied for fourth at The McGladrey Classic in Sea Island, Ga., in October, tied for third at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Maui in January and finished 17th at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January.

From January to this week’s contending run at the Shell Houston Open, his best finish in five tournaments has been 44th at the Honda Classic. Henley has dropped back to 47th in the FedEx Cup standings after finishing 19th in 2014.

But the 6-0, 180-pound Macon, Ga., native is capable of making weekend noise at Augusta. If not this year, soon. He owns a pair of tour victories (2013 Sony Open, 2014 Honda Classic).

He has the short game: No. 7 on the PGA Tour this year in Total Putting, No. 6 in Hit Green Percentage.

“One of the things about Russell, he’s a wonderful putter,” said ESPN’s Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open winner. “And obviously you’ve got to putt your ball well (at Augusta). When he gets in his streaks of when he’s putting well, he putts probably as well as anybody.

“But it really does take awhile for a player to figure out Augusta National and figure out how to get it around. And you’ve got to make putts, but you’ve got to keep the ball in positions where you can make putts. But he’s the kind of guy that his short game is very, very good, and obviously that works there.”

Henley, sponsored by the Kiawah Island Club, shot 73-70-75-75 at Augusta last year.

“I don’t have to be perfect to play well around that course,” he said. “It’s such a tough track and if you can just keep yourself in the hole and miss it in the right spot you can make pars and a few birdies. So just knowing that I don’t have to be perfect is a nice feeling.”

Ah, but that Augusta sometimes demands exactness is part of the riddle. As Henley evaluated a 55-yard chip at the par 4 17th hole on Friday last year, he quizzed veteran caddie Adam Hayes.

“Do we want to be short of this or pass it?” Henley said.

“To be honest, buddy, we want to be right next to it,” Hayes shot back.

Henley knocked his ball of the flagstick, dropped the short putt and carded a birdie on his way to 70.

The Masters build-up has mixed signals. Henley hasn’t been contending.

But he had made all 10 cuts this year, including a 69-68 charge this week at the Shell Houston Open.

“It’s a funny game,” Henley said. “Right when I least expect it, I’m probably going to play great.”

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff