BETHESDA, Md. — At his first U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last June, Russell Henley settled into his courtesy car for the week, a pearl-white Lexus SUV, and remarked with a wry smile, "It's got 11 miles on it."
He hasn't woken up since.
Henley tied for 16th place to win low amateur honors that week, and he's back for another try at the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. Absent his A-game Thursday, Henley nonetheless shot a two-over 73.
"I think I've kind of found a little groove," said Henley, who lost his swing in the middle of his round but found it on his last few holes. His wasn't the best score of the 12 amateurs, but it was far from the worst.
"He's an incredible player," said Heath Slocum, one of Henley's playing partners Thursday. "He's got a power game, but more importantly it was his attitude. He was calm, collected — I hope he stays that way. He wasn't at his best and still shot two over par, which is pretty good out here."
A headline in Thursday's USA Today decried, "U.S. golf stuck in major bunker," but maybe the situation is not quite so dire. Maybe there's hope in a 6-foot, 170-pound, pigeon-toed kid who was the longest player in his group but who hides his most potent weapon between his ears.
At 22, Henley is the same age as first-round leader Rory McIlroy, who has already been a pro for four years. What's the rush? Henley promised his parents and himself he would get a college degree, and he did, at Georgia. He's never met fellow Bulldog Bubba Watson (71 Thursday ), but he has met Tom Watson, who nearly won the British Open a couple years ago at age 59. Henley played behind him at Pebble Beach last year. "Nicest guy in the world," said Henley's mom, Sally. Tom Watson — Exhibit A on the value of taking the long view.
Henley woke up at 5 a.m. — "The earliest I've been up in a while," he said — for his 7:33 a.m. tee time Thursday and was followed by Sally, his father, Chapin, and a handful of friends. He made just one birdie, on the 467-yard, par-4 14th hole, and vowed to elicit more noise Friday.
"He's a goals guy," said PGA Professional Bobby Hix, Henley's coach at Idle Hour Country Club in Macon, Ga. "I said, 'You've got yourself another U.S. Open. What are you going to do with it?' He said, 'I've already got a 16th. I don't need another one of those.' He's got his sights set high, as he should."
Henley's action features a decidedly upright takeaway that makes him appear to be a sort of anti-Matt Kuchar. When Henley's swing got a little loose in the spring, he and Hix worked for five hours on the University of Georgia driving range, and in retrospect it was a monumentally productive session. The two were at Idle Hour three weeks later when Henley summoned Hix.
"He said, 'Come over here and look how straight I'm hitting these 5-irons,'" Hix said. "I stood 10 to 15 feet behind him and stuck a piece of PVC pipe in the ground. The pipe was an inch and a half wide, and it was stuck in the ground so I couldn't see the ball or the flagstick. He hit five 5-irons and I never saw the ball; it stayed inside the width of that pipe the whole way. That was when I told his dad, 'You know what? He's fixin' to hurt somebody's feelings.' Sure enough he did."
Henley tied for sixth at the SEC Championship in April. In May, less than a week before he was set to graduate from Georgia, where he majored in Housing and Consumer Economics (lots of real estate classes), Henley won the Nationwide tour's Stadion Classic at UGA, forgoing a $99,000 payday. He was the second amateur winner in the 21-year history of the tour. He plans to put off turning pro until after the Walker Cup at Scotland's Royal Aberdeen, Sept. 10-11.
"I just love team sports," he said after signing his card Thursday. "From an early age, I'm playing basketball, soccer, football, ice hockey — I played it all."
In fact, Henley would have had to declare himself a professional before the start of the Stadion to collect prize money, but even if he could have given up his amateur status retroactively to grab the cash, he wouldn't have. He isn't going to abandon his Walker Cup dream that easily, and it's not like he's hurting financially. Dad Chapin is an OB/GYN, and Henley drives a four-year-old Acura.
"I can see passing on $99,000, if you have the right counselors," said three-time U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin, who was at Congressional to watch his son, Steve. "There could be $999,000 around the corner if you play your cards right."
At two-over, Henley is one behind Brad Benjamin and U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein in the race for low am. It's early. After playing in the Walker Cup, Henley plans to turn pro for Q-School, and no matter what happens there he'll be exempt on the Nationwide tour in 2012 thanks to his Stadion victory. He's driving another Lexus this week. It's a very fine ride.