The education of Russell Henley began with a tutorial from the comedian Dave Chappelle. It was the last day of the 2008 Georgia Amateur, and Henley, then 19, was tied for the lead. Robert Tyre Jones Jr. had won the first state am; Harris English, the guy Henley was tied with and his roommate at Georgia, was the defending champ. If that wasn’t pressure enough, the ’08 Am was at Idle Hour, Henley’s home club in Macon, and he knew many of the fans in attendance.
“I’ll never forget how nervous he was,” says Bobby Hix, the Idle Hour pro, who began working with Henley when the latter was 12. “He was on the range, and he said, ‘Coach, I don’t know what’s going on, but I can’t get the ball off the ground.’ He was hitting these awful-sounding shots off the bottom of the club, ankle-high. His brother, Adam, was his caddie, and we both just stood there. I said, ‘Y’all come inside.’ We watched Dave Chappelle on YouTube and laughed and laughed, and after a while I said, ‘You’re ready. Go play golf.’ ”
Henley shot 69 to nip English by a shot. He won the state am the next year too. And when he shot 63 to win the Sony Open going away in January, his hot putter yielding five straight closing birdies to break the Sony scoring record by four shots, he became the first man since Garrett Willis at the 2001 Touchstone Energy Tucson Open to win in his maiden start on the PGA Tour. He also locked up a spot in the Masters, among other exclusive get-togethers. Last week, in fact, he upset Charl Schwartzel in the first round of the Accenture Match Play Championship before falling to Jason Day.
“It was a little crazy for a week or two there,” says Henley, 23. “But I feel like I’m back to just playing golf again. The biggest change is my schedule. I’m in the Masters, the PGA. It’s changed my whole year.”
As the Tour makes its annual pilgrimmage east for the Florida swing, Henley has been the class of the 2013 rookie class—an eclectic group that includes James (Gangnam Style) Hahn (box, left). The Masters is creeping ever closer as well, and the other rookies would dearly love to join Henley at Augusta National. So would the growing list of other recent Georgia alumni, no doubt inspired by Henley and reigning Masters champ Bubba Watson, another Bulldog. Among the most gifted contenders for a late Masters invite is the guy Henley edged at Idle Hour.
Henley grew up 21⁄2 hours north of English on Georgia’s I-75, but English frequently traveled to Macon, where they began playing golf together when they were 11. English usually won. He was always bigger—at 6' 3", he’s got Henley by at least three inches—and his textbook swing stands out next to Henley’s funky action.
English was also quicker to dive into golf full time. At 12, he shot 69–68 to win the Future Masters in Dothan, Ala., while Henley was garaging his clubs for months at a time to play basketball. (A pigeon-toed point guard, he led Stratford Academy in Macon to a regional title as a senior.) “I started playing tournaments younger than he did,” English says, “but he really went straight up, once he got into it. I knew he was going to be good. He had that drive.”
Henley, who goes by Russ or Rex, took to golf the way he had to hoops, soccer and even hockey, working things out largely on his own and with undying determination. “He never understood how somebody could be bad and accept it,” says John Paul Gaddy, who coached boys’ basketball and is the director of admissions at Stratford. “That drove him nuts.” If he had a poor game, Henley would ask to keep the gym open for an extra hour or two so he could find his stroke. Still, he needed the odd bit of coaching.
When it came to golf, Hix reminded Henley that he only taught kids who kept their grades up. Henley did, and he ended up in Athens. Traveling to a college tournament at Olympia Fields, Henley asked Georgia coach Chris Haack whether they might see any rattlesnakes. “There ain’t no rattlesnakes in Chicago!” Haack replied. The line became their inside joke.
Henley piled up so many wins and top 10s he was 2010 college player of the year, and at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, his first, he tied for 16th and shared low-amateur honors. The next year, as a senior, he won the Stadion Classic at Georgia’s home course, becoming just the second amateur to win on the Web.com tour. English got a Web.com win of his own 11 weeks later.
Then, without warning, Henley had an entirely new experience: He began to struggle. He failed to get past the second stage of Q school, while English earned his PGA Tour card with a 13th-place tie. “It didn’t bother me,” Henley says, “but it did motivate me.” It may have motivated him a little too much.
Like Keegan Bradley, among others, Henley can lock in and work miracles under pressure, but sometimes he wants it too badly for his own good. And like Bradley, he could also be slow to pull the trigger. “In college, Russell got hit for slow play,” says Haack. “He kept backing off the shot to the point where we had to really work on it. At the Sony they talked about his fast pace of play, and I was thinking, Boy, if they knew what we went through.”
Pressing on the Web.com tour last year, Henley made $20,000 in his first 13 starts, the low point being a first-round 82 in Newburgh, Ind., in late June. His old pal English, meanwhile, had made $568,000 on the big Tour. It was as if they were 12 again. Then Henley changed everything. Following the recommendation of his agent, a member at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, he sought the help of Charles Frost, the pro there, and he switched caddies, replacing Adam with Todd Gjesvold, a noted bag man from Pebble Beach.
“I wasn’t overly familiar with his game, but I knew who he was,” Frost says. “He pulled up YouTube clips of the U.S. Open and said that was the best he’d hit it, and that he’d like to get back to hitting it left to right like that.” Frost weakened Henley’s grip, eliminated his wrist action and told him to swing faster. “He’d gotten long and slow,” Frost says, “which doesn’t fit his tempo.” Henley grooved his new swing with spirited matches at Quail Hollow against Frost and Webb Simpson, the newly crowned U.S. Open champ.
The results were dramatic. Starting last September, Henley won, finished third, won again and tied for sixth to shoot to third on the Web.com money list. He earned a Tour call-up. Determined to make the most of it, on the day after Christmas he scheduled a putting tune-up with his old coach, Hix, and they spent six hours on the green at Idle Hour in near-freezing temperatures. Result: the Sony surprise.
“When Russ gets it going, especially with the putter, it’s hard to stop,” says English. “Ever since he was young, he’s been probably the best putter I’ve seen. Everybody talks about Brandt Snedeker, but I would put Russ up against him.”
None of Henley’s crew made it to Hawaii. His family remains in Macon, but he now lives in Charleston, S.C. English is down the coast in St. Simons, Ga., and they’ve grown apart, so English, having left the course, watched the end of the Sony on TV like everyone else. Well, maybe not everyone else—Henley’s longtime girlfriend, Molly Rumph, an interior designer, was back in Charleston, at a bar with friends, downing a shot every time he made a birdie. (Rumph and her friends were a mess the next day.)
After the round, Henley spoke to his parents, Chapin and Sally, on Face Time, his neck festooned with leis as a limousine took him from Waialae Country Club to his hotel and then the airport. He has been trying to soak it all in without losing sight of the big picture. When Coach Gaddy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago, Henley was at his bedside that afternoon. (Gaddy is in remission.) When Coach Haack was inducted into the Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in December, Henley was the only Tour pro in attendance. And while waiting on the tee at the recent Northern Trust Open at Riviera, he reached in his bag, pulled out his wallet and handed it to Rumph. “He thinks I’d rather shop than watch him play on Valentine’s Day,” she said, charmed by the gesture.
Henley still drives a 2007 Acura TL with 50,000 miles on it; maybe they can both go shopping after the Masters. In late January, he played Augusta National with Frost, and though the course was wet and played long, Henley shot 70. He will turn 24 on the Saturday of the tournament, but he isn’t expecting a party. Teeing it up on the hallowed grounds will be celebration enough, and he now knows better than to try to force anything. Says Rumph, “It’ll be one to remember.