A special amateur hour: Henley just the second amateur golfer to win on the Nationwide Tour

semerson@macon.comMay 8, 2011 

ATHENS -- Russell Henley couldn’t accept the nearly six-figure check. He couldn’t take the silver watch from Tena’s Jewelers, valued at $2,500.

What Henley could do was serve notice once again that he has a special future in the golf world.

On Sunday, the Macon native became just the second amateur golfer to win an event on the Nationwide Tour. It happened in front of a home crowd at the Stadion Classic and on the University of Georgia course, which he has played perhaps hundreds of times.

Still, the Georgia senior -- who spent last week taking exams and will graduate next week -- accomplished a lot by beating a field of golfers who play the sport for a living.

“It hasn’t really set in yet,” Henley said. “(People) keep saying, ‘Oh I hope you make the cut.’ But I’ve been telling everybody, I play to win every golf tournament. I played to win the Open last year.”

That reference was to the U.S. Open, where Henley finished tied for 16th at Pebble Beach last year. He also couldn’t accept a check for that, and Henley’s next event will be an NCAA regional.

Asked what he would do Sunday night, Henley said he hoped some of his friends would still be in town so they could go eat and “hang out for awhile.” And he sounded all of his 22 years when asked what he would have done if he wasn’t done with exams.

“I can barely get myself to study as it is, but I don’t think I could have done it right now,” he said. “I can barely even eat this Snickers bar.”

The U.S. Open was obviously on a much bigger stage, but even in the second-tier Nationwide Tour, playing in front of so many home fans put some pressure on Henley.

“I was a lot less nervous at the Open last year. I guess because I wasn’t really close to the lead,” he said.

In fact, he wasn’t close to the lead after Thursday’s first round. But he played catch-up the next two days, and on Sunday he started in a tie for the lead with Troy Kelly.

By the ninth hole, Henley had the lead for good, after a bogey by Kelly, who also bogeyed the next hole. But the back nine saw plenty of drama, as Henley had to play consistent -- but aggressive -- golf to hold onto the lead.

“That’s what got me there,” Henley said. “It was definitely a lot harder for me to commit to shots. It was harder to choose, when you’ve got a lot of adrenaline going through your body, and it’s just harder to make good decisions.”

It also helped to be so familiar with the course. He admitted that on certain shots he was comfortable taking chances, knowing the layout of every hole. For instance on the 18th, when he was in the woods after his tee shot, he knew that if he hit it past the bunker he had a good chance of getting up-and-down for the par. And he did.

Chris Haack, the head coach of the UGA men’s golf team, said the crowd and course probably helped his player.

“For those of us who’ve watched him play quite a bit, he loves the crowds. That helps him relax when they kind of get behind him,” Haack said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that the familiarity of the golf course certainly helps. He probably if he was in a couple tough situations knew how to bail out. So it couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure.”

Henley’s gallery numbered in the hundreds, which is unusual for a Nationwide event. It included fellow students, family and local fans.

Kelly, who is from Washington state, admitted the situation was difficult for him.

“You’ve got all the local people rooting for him, you kind of feel like it’s you against the world out there,” Kelly said.

Kelly didn’t mind it too much: He got the $99,000 winner’s share.

The watch was donated to charity. Henley will have to wait to collect winnings until he turns pro later this year.

“It’s nice to be successful at that kind of age,” Kelly said of Henley. “Because he’s gonna turn pro here pretty soon, I’m sure. I’m sure it’s gonna give him a ton of confidence. He knows he can already play out there. We’ll see. Just keep grinding away. He’s a great player, and he’s got a good head. He seems comfortable. He putts it good. He hits it long off the tee. So he’s gonna be a good player.”

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