AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – Russell Henley’s head was on a swivel Monday at Augusta National, scanning the gallery for friends, family or anyone else yelling “Go Dawgs.”
The former Georgia Bulldog and Peach State native is playing in his first Masters.
He is carrying the hopes of fans cheering for their first home-state champion since Larry Mize won the green jacket in 1987. Henley said he hadn’t felt as nervous as he did Monday – and that was just practice.
“The excitement of being here and knowing I’m a contestant is a feeling like I’ve never had,” Henley said Monday.
The 23-year-old attended the tournament while growing up in Macon. He played the course while at Georgia and won his way into the field with a victory at the Sony Open in January.
He hopes that enjoying the moments early in the week will lead to focused golf when the tournament starts Thursday.
Henley’s not the only one with deep roots in the Georgia pines. Matt Kuchar grew up in Florida, but is as beloved by the Augusta National galleries as if he’d been born in the Peach State.
Maybe it’s because he played college golf at Georgia Tech or settled on Sea Island.
Most likely it’s the way his smile radiated over the course when he first contended as an amateur in 1998, his tie for 21st was the best finish by an amateur in 20 years.
“There’s a lot of connections for me,” he said. “It’s a special place for sure.”
Should Henley triumph it would mark just the fourth Georgia native to capture the title since the tournament began in 1934. Savannah-born Claude Harmon won in 1948, Gainesville, Ga., native Tommy Aaron in 1973 before Mize – a true hometown favorite from Augusta – rolled in his 140-foot chip on the 11th hole to defeat Greg Norman in a playoff.
“I picked a doozy” of a tournament to win, Mize said at the time.
Wins by Henley or Kuchar would sit equally as well with Augusta National crowds.
Henley, playing his practice round with two-time Masters champion Tom Watson and amateur Nathan Smith, twirled his driver as he walked the fairway, continually stopping to say hi to well-wishers.
“I heard a lot of `Go Dawgs.’ That was cool. Heard a lot of `Go Jackets.’ Didn’t really get that one,” Henley joked about Georgia’s main state rival, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
Kuchar was quick to defend his school when asked to assess why so many young Georgia Bulldog players such as Henley, Harris English and even defending Masters champion Bubba Watson are excelling on tour.
“I’d like to say that Georgia Tech has got about as many alumni out here as possible,” he said with a smile.
Kuchar fell in love with this event because of the amateur experience conceived by golf’s greatest amateur, tournament co-founder Bobby Jones.
Jones, an Atlanta native, designed Augusta National with architect Alister MacKenzie and the Masters began in 1934. By then, Jones’ championship days were past and he never finished better than 13th in 12 career appearances.
Kuchar felt Jones’ aura throughout the grounds 15 years ago in his debut here, from staying in the amateur’s only “Crow’s Nest” clubhouse loft to the amateur dinner and interacting with the gracious Southern galleries.
“You really feel like this tournament is for you, as an amateur,” Kuchar recalled. “This is what it’s supposed to be. … Bobby Jones designed it with amateurs in mind and they couldn’t wait to have some amateurs have some real success.”
Kuchar, who qualified as the U.S. Amateur champion, gave everyone a thrill with his week at Augusta National. He was paired with then one-time and defending Masters champion Tiger Woods and wound up the low amateur, a feat he repeated later that year with a tie for 14th at the U.S. Open.
Kuchar has grown with his game and comes in expecting to contend after last year’s tie for third.
Henley hopes he makes an immediate mark on Augusta National and fulfill the dream of wearing the green jacket, something he’s thought about since learning the game in Macon.
“I’ve dreamed about playing in this tournament. I’ve dreamed about winning on the PGA Tour and I’ve accomplished both of those,” Henley said. “I’ve got a lot more on the list.”
Henley doesn’t want to think too far down Magnolia Lane, though, but can’t always help imagining victory here. “It would be very special,” he said.