HONOLULU – With five consecutive birdies, Russell Henley shut down Tim Clark’s comeback effort and secured his first PGA Tour title, leaving the veteran South African impressed with the upstart 23-year-old.
Clark’s final-round 63 showed signs of his return to the scene, while Matt Jones benefited from Spencer Levin’s absence at the Sony Open. Meanwhile, Marc Leishman kept the weight off and secured a top-10 in the process.
Here are 5 Things to take away from Sunday at the Sony Open:
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1. NOTHING BUT HIGH PRAISE: Tim Clark gushed when he started talking about the young 23-year-old whom he just played 18 holes with on Sunday. The round was not a casual one. It was Russell Henley’s final round in the final group of his first PGA Tour event as a rookie.
Fresh off the Web.com Tour, Henley was one of the wide-eyed players who come to Hawaii every year to just keep their cards, but is the first one to walk away with the Sony Open trophy at the end.
“I gave it all I had, and he just played phenomenal,” Clark said of Henley. “I was very impressed with his demeanor right from the start. I could see he was comfortable in that situation, and obviously the guy that wins a tournament on the Web.com Tour as an amateur can handle big moments. I was just extremely impressed with him.”
No higher praise exists than when a fellow competitor tips his cap.
But Clark still tried to force the issue, and Henley knew the 2010 Players champion would make a charge, but no matter what Clark threw at the rookie, he answered back.
“I still got on the 15th hole and said, ‘Well, let’s finish with four birdies and see what happens.’ And sure enough, he birdied the last four, too,” Clark said. “I’m just – I’m happy for him. When a guy plays that well and beats you, you just have to be happy for them.”
Clark said he never really thought he could catch Henley as well as he was playing, but Henley never thought that.
“Todd (Gjesvold, Henley’s caddie) kept telling me get ready for a dogfight because Tim is going to come charging, and I knew he was,” Henley said. “So I just tried to keep pretending I was 2 down or 3 down and losing and tried to keep on pressing and being aggressive and hitting good shots.”
Henley shot a 6-under 29 on the back nine – a fact he didn’t know until he added up his card in the scorer’s trailer.
In doing so, Henley made birdie putts of 8, 44, 12, 12, 17 and 8 feet to close out a field that really had no idea who Russell Henley was when he arrived on the shores of Oahu.
“I remember saying to Todd walking up 9, I don’t care what happens this week or next week. I feel like I’m playing great right now, and I think something good is going to happen soon,” Henley said. “I feel like I picked up right where I left off with the Web.com season and kind of carried over my confidence, and here I am.”
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2. CLARK IS FINALLY BACK: It has been a difficult two years for Tim Clark, and it all started here in Hawaii at the Sony Open in 2011. Sometime during that final round Clark hurt himself – he doesn’t know how or when – but he traces it back to then when he finished second after a final-round 64.
His right elbow had a torn tendon and after months of trying to get the elbow right with rehabilitation, surgery was deemed the only way to fix it. So, on Aug. 9, 2011, the South African had surgery that required four months of recovery and rehab.
It would take time for Clark to get his game back, and while rumors swirled that Clark was contemplating retirement, they were just rumors.
“Quitting is not in my genes,” Clark said. “I will say I’m not the hardest worker possibly, but certainly not a quitter. I love the game, and I wanted to continue to play, so I was going to do everything I could to get back out here.”
Clark had chances to get back in the win column in 2012 at Travelers in June and then at Greensboro, but it didn’t happen. It did, however, provide confidence coming into this year.
“Today meant a lot,” Clark said of his final-round 63. “To be able to stay calm and feel like I had a chance to win here, I do feel like I’m back.”
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3. LEVIN’S LOSS IS JONES’ GAIN: Caddie Mike Hicks got a call in the middle of December; it was Spencer Levin. The call was little about golf and more chit-chat, but in the end Levin told his caddie that he was not going to play until at least Phoenix and may actually take the rest of the year off.
Levin had surgery on his left thumb in October and was cleared to hit balls and practice in December, but it’s not clear the thumb is the reason for his hiatus from the PGA Tour.
“He’s been practicing and playing, but I don’t know,” Hicks said of Levin’s return. “I spoke to him right before I left, and we really didn’t talk about golf. We just talked about football and stuff.”
Enter Kevin Stadler, who was in contact with Matt Jones and knew Hicks was available. A couple of phone calls later, and Hicks was on Jones’ bag this week at Sony.
“It all depends on what Spence does, because I’m sure he’s on Spencer’s bag when he comes back,” Jones said. “He’ll be on my bag until Spencer is ready to come back, I’m assuming.”
The duo recorded a T-15 at Sony this week, Jones’ best finish in a PGA Tour event since a T-5 at Puerto Rico last year.
“Probably just a little more focused than I have been the last few years, and I’m more interested in golf,” Jones said. “I’ve played golf for so long now that you kind of get a bit stale sometimes, and I think that’s happened the last few years.”
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4. NO HAWAIIAN BLUES: Marc Leishman likes to return to Australia during the offseason, but when he returns to the PGA Tour at the beginning of the year there is usually a little more Leishman than he would like.
So this year when he went Down Under, the Australian came back at close to the same weight as when he left.
“Drank a little bit less beer and ate a little bit less food,” Leishman said. “I’m not carrying the extra pounds that I normally am this time of year. I’m still carrying a little bit extra. I was just a bit more careful with what I ate and what I drank and just preparing better.”
Leishman has never had any real success on the West Coast , with exception of two top-10s at Torrey Pines (T-2 in 2010, T-9 in 2011).
His T-9 at Sony this week is only his third top-10 in 19 career West Coast appearances.
“I normally like the West Coast,” Leishman said. “But generally don’t get started up until about Texas playing good, so hopefully this year I can change that.”
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5. NEW LOOPER: Chad Campbell has been on the PGA Tour full time since 2002. That’s 307 events, 1,034 rounds and four wins.
During that entire time, except for the occasional week off, Judd Burkett has been on Campbell’s bag. That changed this week at Sony with Burkett back in Texas and Campbell in Hawaii for the start of the PGA Tour season.
“It’s a great opportunity for him, and I can’t blame him,” Campbell said of Burkett’s working in a home health-care business. “Hopefully it works out great. I mean, we’re still good friends, and me and D.J. are great friends.”
D.J. is Heath Slocum’s old caddie, D.J. Nelson, now on Campbell’s bag.
“It kind of worked out,” Campbell said. “D.J. was kind of looking, and we’re real good friends, as well. It just kind of fit.”