Henley's key to success? Stay in attack mode

Russell Henley

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Jeff Rude’s “Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

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LA QUINTA, Calif. – Always attack. Never protect. Russell Henley, golf mature beyond his years, knows that at 23, as a growing number of young PGA Tour players seem to. That mind-set helps explain why Henley came within two strokes of the PGA Tour’s 72-hole scoring record last week in his first start as a rookie.

There’s a line in a golfer’s head that separates aggressive from conservative, attack from protect. Everyone who has hit a ball has felt the difference – ranging from multiple major champions to someone uncomfortable while trying to break 100 for the first time.

Henley is fortunate to have figured it out so soon. But then he and others early in their Tour careers for years have watched Tiger Woods. And they have seen what we have, that Woods has but one foot-stomping gear: Pedal to the metal.

In Henley’s case, he has been living what he calls a “dream” since Sunday, when he launched his Tour career with a stunning 256 total and a three-stroke Sony Open victory punctuated by five consecutive closing birdies.

Significantly, he broke out of a 54-hole tie with Scott Langley thanks to an outlook tracing to a Web.com Tour tournament last year in Charlotte, N.C. Co-leader by five strokes with a round left then, Henley found himself lapsing into a protective mode. As it happened, others caught up and he was fortunate to win a three-man playoff.

“I played a little bit more conservative than the first couple days then,” Henley said here Wednesday on the eve of the Humana Challenge. “When you play a little more conservative on a course with great weather and great greens, somebody is going to catch you. I definitely look back on that thinking and remembering you've got to attack all four days.”

Fast forward to Honolulu last Sunday. Lesson learned and applied.

“I definitely drew from my experience last year,” the kid from Macon, Ga., said. “Looking back, I knew I should've attacked a little more. I definitely pulled from my experience.”

If you get the impression Henley is introspective, you’re right. He has examined his playing history and knows that it can be harder to swing freely and aggressively under intense pressure. Like many others, his tendency when nervous is to guide the ball.

Enter the influence of Woods. Henley not only has watched Woods for years, he has listened. He recalls Woods’ late father, Earl, saying that one must run through the finish line.

“You just start to hear that mentality and I think you just feed off of it a little bit,” Henley said. “You’ve got to attack all four days. That was kind of the goal last week, and I knew not to let up.”

You might say Henley has another good role model. His name is Rory McIlroy, who like Woods has won multiple major championships by at least eight strokes. Henley played in the 2010 U.S. Open at Congressional that McIlroy won by eight and took away another pearl of wisdom.

“(McIlroy) talked about the last day picking good targets and making aggressive swings to those targets,” Henley said. “That’s what I try to do – staying with my swing and not trying to guide it or help it. That’s my biggest deal.”

Hall of Famer Lanny Wadkins has talked about how players such as Tom Watson and himself would get to 7 under in a round and want to get to 8 under instead of protecting. One gets the sense that more and more players, even young ones, think that way today.

Robert Garrigus, twice a Tour driving-distance champion and once a winner, certainly has noticed that more kids are prepared upon arrival and play without fear.

“It’s the new way to go about things,” said Garrigus, who shot 78 in his first round as a Tour rookie, in 2006. “Kids are so much more prepared now than even when I was a rookie. You’re kind of amazed, but then you kind of expect it because they’ve all watched Tiger growing up.”

Interestingly, while Woods has inspired so many, Garrigus says he has been motivated to work out because of the young guns who come to the Tour ready to go.

Henley, meanwhile, found himself eager to finally sleep well Tuesday night after not getting much the previous two days.

“The last few days have been kind of crazy for me,” Henley said.

Crazy also means this: Getting a tweet from Gary Player. “Feeling like a kid” realizing he’ll get to play in his beloved Masters in his home state. Learning that students at his Macon high school wore Hawaiian shirts Tuesday on “Russell Henley Day.” And finding out buddies in his new residence of Charleston, S.C., had a ritual Sunday in which they would take a drink every time Henley made a putt.

Henley also got a call from his high school basketball coach, who wanted to know if Henley was more nervous in the final round than when playing a rival back in the day.

“I told him probably when we were playing one of our rival teams,” Henley said, smiling. “But I was just messing with him.”

Now the question is this: How will Henley rebound from the success this week, after all the attention and lack of sleep?

“I’m not quite as well-rested as last week,” he said, “but I still have a lot of adrenaline and I’m really, really excited to play. So I think I’m definitely ready.”

• Asked what other young twentysomething player he is impressed with, Henley didn’t hesitate in identifying former Georgia teammate Harris English. And he went so far as to say this about the second-year Tour player:

“Physically what he can do with the golf ball is probably the most impressive I’ve seen.”

Pressed on that high praise, Henley didn’t back down. “He hits his 4-iron 230 yards with a fade. It’s impressive to watch.”

• Recently named Humana health and well-being ambassador, Gary Player didn’t disappoint when addressing a news conference Wednesday. The Black Knight went on and on again about obesity being the killer of millions and said he has learned that the less you eat, the longer you live. Then came his kicker.

“Everybody eats like it’s the Last Supper,” Player said.

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