Martin: Henley a 'grinder' who just knows how to win

Russell Henley drives off the fourth tee during the final round of the Sony Open.

It’s a common practice for PGA Tour players, not junior golfers. Russell Henley already performed this small act, though, because he had but one goal in mind.

“If he hit a chip shot by the hole, he wasn’t slamming his club,” Georgia head coach Chris Haack replied when asked what impressed him about Henley as a high-schooler. “He was watching the ball go by the hole to see the line of the putt coming back. He was very adept about knowing that this game is all about getting the ball in the hole in the least amount of strokes.

“He was always grinding.”

Henley was a three-time state high school golf champion in Georgia. He also was all-state as a basketball player. His athletic background explains his quick pace of play, and his quick success on the PGA Tour. He’s not overwhelmed by the complex thoughts that consume many golfers.

“I’m not very technical with my golf lingo,” Henley said.

He’s thinking only about golf’s simple objective.

Henley won the Sony Open on Sunday, giving him a victorious start to his rookie PGA Tour season, by showing an impressive knack for getting the ball underground. His 24-under 256 total – including birdies on the final five holes – was good for a three-shot victory.

Henley’s victory was his fourth in 34 combined starts on the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour. He won on the Web.com Tour as an amateur in 2011 and won twice on that circuit last year to earn his PGA Tour card.

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Final Sony Open scores, FedEx Cup points and earnings, click here.

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“Nothing surprises me with Russell,” Haack said of his former player. “Last year, when he played so well, he bred a bunch of confidence. When he gets confident, he’s a heck of a player and he knows how to win.”

He’s shown that. Henley’s Sony victory was his third in his past five starts, dating to the close of the 2012 Web.com Tour season. The Sony victory earned the Macon, Ga., native his first Masters start.

Henley was clutch in his first PGA Tour victory, just as he was during the closing weeks of last season.

Henley had high hopes for his rookie Web.com Tour season after his victory as an amateur at the 2011 Stadion Classic. His first pro season didn’t start as he envisioned, though, and in July he was 102nd on the money list.

“I feel like that’s some of the worst golf I’ve played for a while,” Henley said. It started to turn around with the help of Quail Hollow-based instructor Charles Frost, whom Henley began working with in June. Henley also learned from U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson during casual rounds last year at Quail Hollow; the two share an agent, Thomas Parker.

Henley’s work with Frost – which made Henley’s swing less “armsy,” in Henley’s words – paid dividends. In the season’s final four events, Henley won twice and finished no worse than sixth.

In both victories – at the Chiquita Classic and Winn-Dixie Jacksonville Open – Henley holed a putt of at least 15 feet on the 72nd hole to force a playoff, then won on the first playoff hole.

"I remember I was reading something about Jack Nicklaus in a magazine about making pressure putts," Henley said after his Jacksonville Open victory. "It said to believe in your line and make a confident stroke, and I did that right there. I just tried to put a confident stroke on it, had the right read, and it was really cool seeing it go in."

He finished third on the Web.com Tour money list, with $400,116. More than 70 percent of that total came in that impressive final month. His earnings in those four weeks alone would’ve ranked him 11th on the money list.

That just foreshadowed his Sony Open success, though.

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