MARANA, Ariz. – Russell Henley enjoys the pressure he feels as he’s closing out a victory. He gets nervous, but thrives on those feelings. He performed admirably in a stressful situation Thursday, beating Charl Schwartzel in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
Henley secured his 1-up victory with an up-and-down at the 18th. From about 8 feet short of the green, he chipped it to a foot.
“I love feeling that, being nervous and having the butterflies,” said Henley, No. 58 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Not only did he dispatch a former Masters champion, but Henley beat one of the world’s hottest players. Schwartzel won two titles by double-digit margins late last year, and he had finished no worse than fifth in his past seven starts, including a T-3 last week at Riviera. He’s No. 11 in the OWGR.
“I’ve heard a lot of comments from people saying they expected (Schwartzel) to win,” Henley said, “and that gave me a little motivation, for sure.”
Henley won the first two holes against Schwartzel on Wednesday. Schwartzel three-putted the first hole from 47 feet. Henley two-putted for birdie to win the par-5 second hole. He was 2 up at the turn, but went double-bogey, bogey on Nos. 10 and 11 to lose both holes. That’s when play was called because of Wednesday’s snow.
Henley won the first two holes when play resumed Thursday afternoon after Schwartzel hit approach shots into bunkers on Nos. 12 and 13. Henley two-putted for par on 12 and hit his approach shot to a foot on the 13th. Schwartzel had five bogeys and no birdies in his first 13 holes. His first birdie came at the drivable, par-4 15th after hitting a greenside bunker shot to a couple of feet. That birdie cut Henley’s lead to 1 up with three holes remaining. Schwartzel missed a 14-foot birdie putt at the 16th that would have squared the match. He also missed a 15-foot birdie putt at the 17th. Henley then missed a 7-foot birdie putt that would’ve ended the match.
They arrived at the 18th tee with Henley holding a 1-up lead.
Both players were in the fairway but missed the green. Henley hit first, and Schwartzel followed by hitting his approach into a greenside bunker. Henley’s closed chip meant Schwartzel had to hole out from the bunker to force extra holes. He didn’t, allowing Henley to complete the upset.
It’s the latest impressive win in Henley’s rookie season. He opened his rookie year by winning the Sony Open, his fourth victory in 37 starts on the PGA and Web.com tours. He birdied the final five holes at the Sony Open, continuing a trend of successful 11th-hour performances. He holed putts of at least 15 feet to force playoffs in his two 2012 Web.com Tour victories. His PGA Tour card wasn’t even secure until he won twice in the final four weeks of the 2012 Web.com Tour season, finishing no worse than sixth in that span.
“He gets better under pressure,” his caddie, Todd Gjesvold, said. “A switch comes on.”
He turned out the lights on a former Masters champion on Thursday.