ATHENS -- Russell Henley introduced himself to many in the golfing world last summer at the U.S. Open at the Pebble Beach.
Those who missed his 16th-place finish and low amateur status won’t be in the dark about the Macon native much longer.
The 22-year-old Georgia senior won the Nationwide Tour’s Stadion Classic at UGA on Sunday, becoming only the second amateur to win an event on the tour.
The victory earned Henley an exemption on to the Nationwide Tour for the rest of the year if he chooses to turn professional.
The moppy-haired young man said he would decline the exemption, however, after he joined Daniel Summerhays as the only two amateurs to win on the Nationwide Tour. Summerhays turned pro after his win.
A few members of the media expressed astonishment that Henley wouldn’t take the exemption. Henley wants to be a professional golfer, and he now has his free ride onto the second-biggest professional tour in the United States.
One man said prior to Sunday’s final round that he’d bet Henley would turn pro if he won the Stadion, at the very least doing so after the NCAA Championships. He has 60 days to take the exemption.
“You should have taken that bet,” Henley’s brother and caddie Adam Henley said after being told of the man’s comments.
Those in Henley’s inner circle know professional golf isn’t just yet in the cards for Henley.
Henley has said for two years that his goal was to represent the U.S. in the Walker Cup, which is amateur golf’s version of the Ryder Cup. He still wants to go after individual and team NCAA championships. He’d like another shot at the U.S. Amateur, the one event he hasn’t played well in. He has other favorite amateur tournaments, like the Dogwood Invitational and the Porter Cup, that he’d like to win.
Henley said Sunday he didn’t think he would have turned pro even if he won the U.S. Open last year.
“I love being an amateur,” he said.
Taking the Nationwide Tour exemption would probably give Henley an easier track to play on the PGA Tour than the path he plans to follow.
The tour has 20 more tournaments this year, and the top 25 players on the Nationwide Tour receive exemptions onto the PGA Tour. If Henley were a pro Sunday, he would have earned $99,000 with his win, which would place him eighth on the current Nationwide Tour money list. He is a good enough player to finish in that top 25.
Instead, Henley’s likely path to the PGA Tour will be through qualifying school, where one bad week could sink his hopes to make the big tour.
Henley said he made commitments to a number of amateur tours throughout the summer and that he wasn’t willing to back out of those.
That Henley doesn’t want to take the easier way out says a lot about his focus, resolve and commitment.
Plus, he also gets an exemption onto the Nationwide Tour in 2012 thanks to the tournament winner exemption, which is a very comforting fallback if he stumbles at Q school.
Henley said golf for him has never been about winning money. He loves the sport, and he knows the PGA Tour will be there for him in 2012 or 2013. He wants to enjoy the final few months of his amateur career.
But whenever he does make it on the elite tour, plenty of people will be anticipating his arrival.
Contact Jonathan Heeter at 744-4400 or firstname.lastname@example.org