Henley uses unconventional route to PGA Tour success
Russell Henley wasn’t your typical junior player.
He played for his high school team, the Stratford Academy Eagles, in Macon, Ga., and played only a few American Junior Golf Association events. Henley limited most of his junior play to the Southeastern U.S.
“I was still playing basketball when I started to take golf seriously, so I played basketball throughout high school,” Henley said. “I enjoyed those tournaments more because I played in those tournaments with friends from high school.”
He didn’t have to play the flashy tournaments to make his childhood dream a reality.
Now in his rookie season, Henley is a winner on the PGA Tour.
He will be the Nike Night guest speaker at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley, which will be played April 26-28 at Sage Valley Golf Club in Graniteville, S.C. He intends to talk about his experiences on the Web.com and PGA tours, but also discuss his unconventional route through junior golf to college at Georgia.
Henley had dreams of playing on tour, and even winning, but not necessarily to break through so early in his career.
“I definitely didn’t plan on it, having success this early, but I knew I was ready to go out and compete having played in a few major championships already, and had some success on the Web.com Tour, which gave me a lot of confidence to start the year,” Henley said. “I was definitely ready to compete, but didn’t plan on winning the first one out.”
Henley’s journey started in Macon, where he grew up playing golf and basketball for Stratford Academy. He was a three-time state medalist in high school and led the Eagles to state titles in 2004 and '05. He was named all-state in 2004-06.
He played in numerous Georgia State Golf Association tournaments, and was named the GSGA’s Junior Player of the Year in 2005 and '06.
In 2005, his junior career took off when he made it to the Round of 16 at the U.S. Junior Amateur at Longmeadow (Mass.) Country Club. He lost to eventual champion Kevin Tway. That was when Henley started to get letters from college coaches.
He knew from the beginning of his recruiting process that he wanted to go to Georgia, so it wasn’t a hard decision for him.
When Henley made the jump to college golf, he admits, even though he was a standout all four years that getting his game to the next level was a tough adjustment for him.
“It was pretty hard, when you go from junior golf to a top school like Georgia, playing in some of the most talented tournaments in the nation,” Henley said.
He was a four-time All-American at Georgia. In his junior year, he won the Haskins Award as the nation's most outstanding collegiate golfer. The next year, Henley won the Stadion Classic on the Web.com Tour, as an amateur, in the annual stop at the University of Georgia's course in Athens.
“It was definitely one of my goals and dreams, just to make it to the PGA Tour, and that was a very special week,” Henley said. “It kind of jump-started me, and knowing that I had status the following year on the Web.com Tour, and to have that kind of security going through Q-School was great, but I definitely thought I was going to make it, for sure.”
He took status on the Web.com Tour in 2012, and after a slow start, succeeded in his first year as a professional. He won two tournaments late in the season to propel him into the top 25 on the money list to earn a PGA Tour card.
In his first start on the PGA Tour, he won with a tournament-record 24-under 256 score at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Henley's score was the second-lowest 72-hole total in PGA Tour history.
Henley and the Sage Valley Junior Invitational go hand in hand.
The Junior Invitational is known as the Masters of junior golf. Henley played in his first Masters Tournament two weeks ago, missing the cut. Being the guest speaker on Nike Night, after Friday's first round of the tournament, Henley will be able to give advice from his first tee time at Augusta National for these teenagers playing in the biggest tournament of their lives, just as he had.
Also, Henley will able to learn about what these top-notch junior players do on a daily basis to achieve their dreams. He will find it to be a little different than his route as a junior golfer.
Henley and these junior players have more in common than they think, though, leading to a learning experience for all.