Shortly after Russell Henley took up the game of golf, he and older brother Adam Henley started a tradition.
The two would go out to Idle Hour Country Club on Christmas Day and play nine holes.
The first few outings, Adam Henley — nearly 12 years Russell Henley’s senior — beat his less experienced brother. He knew, however, the day would come when he would lose to his rapidly improving brother.
That day came during one of those Christmas Day matches when Russell Henley was just 13.
“It was going to come sooner or later,” Adam Henley said. “It just happened sooner. He was improving so much, and he obviously had a great future. It was a special day.”
Russell Henley’s golf accomplishments have grown exponentially in that short period of time since then.
In the eight years since that day, Henley has earned a scholarship to the University of Georgia, won two Georgia Amateur championships, five collegiate tournament championships, the SEC championship and a NCAA regional championship. He has finished in the top 10 at the NCAA golf championships and he finished the 2009-10 season ranked No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Collegiate Golf Rankings. He was a finalist for the Ben Hogan Award for the nation’s top collegiate golfer. He is currently ranked as one of the top five amateurs in the world by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.
All of that growth over the past eight years and everything the 21-year-old has learned since he picked up his first club will be tested this week. Henley faces the biggest challenge of his young career on Thursday when he tees off at Pebble Beach in the U.S. Open. Henley, who is making his second appearance in a professional event and his debut in a PGA Tour event, will tee off a 5:31 p.m. in the first round.
“For a lot of people, this is the biggest tournament they will ever play in,” said Henley, who just finished his junior year at Georgia. “It’s definitely going to be a huge challenge for me. I’m expecting to go out there and just learn as much as I can. I try to learn something new at every tournament, and this is going to be another chance to do that.”
Henley has been a sponge for knowledge since picking up the sport around the age of 11.
He started playing golf just because many of his friends from school were taking it up. He was a standout athlete in every sport he played as a youth, from baseball to basketball to soccer.
“He’s the kind of guy that wants to beat you in everything,” said John Paul Gaddy, Henley’s high school basketball coach at Stratford. “Basketball, cards, it didn’t matter. And he was the best athlete in any sport he wanted to play.”
As he poured his energy into golf, Henley started to shed his other sports. By the time he reached high school, only basketball and golf remained. Henley continued to play basketball for a few reasons. His coaches — swing coach Bobby Hix and future head coach at Georgia Chris Haack — encouraged him to play basketball. Plus, he was very good at it.
“Playing other sports gave him an advantage,” Hix said. “One of the key elements to swinging a golf club is balance. Basketball helped things like balance and hand-eye coordination. But as a point guard, it really helped his decision-making process. The competitive nature of a team sport gave him an edge on everyone else.”
Henley’s development raced along at a brisk pace through junior golf and high school. Henley’s abilities forecasted greatness — he won three state individual championships at Stratford — but it was his mental growth during his freshman year at Georgia when many believed his game went to another level.
The most important piece of Henley’s maturation process came when he began letting go. Bad shots no longer lingered. Bad putts were bound to happen. Henley started to understand that you can’t do anything about mistakes on the course, and that there was no reason to think any more about them after they happened. He found away to move past every bad tournament, bad round, bad hole and bad shot.
“Some guys will hit a bad shot, and it will stay with them for four holes,” said Peter Persons, a former professional golfer and Henley’s short-game coach. “I know because I did it. But Russell does a better job than any player of moving on.”
Hix preached the power of positive thinking from the start, but it took awhile and some maturing for Henley to embrace that mentality. It also helped that Haack and Persons reinforced those principles.
“Golf is supposed to be fun,” Henley said. “You can’t kill yourself over every bad shot. Everyone makes them. You just let it go and move on and have fun. I used to let bad days really get to me. Now, I can focus on the positives and not let the negatives bother me.”
With that approach, Henley rebounded from some mediocre early play to win the 2008 Georgia Amateur Championship at Idle Hour. And the mentality has helped morph him into one of the top amateur golfers in the world.
“The sky is the limit,” Hix said. “I told Russell when he started out, he can go as far as he wants.”
But Henley is in no hurry to move on to the next level, despite his strong play this year and his appearance in the U.S. Open.
He said no matter what happens this week, he plans on staying at Georgia through graduation and as a amateur through the Walker Cup in September 2011. He will leave Pebble Beach and head straight to Northern Ireland to play for the U.S. collegiate team in the Palmer Cup. He has the U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay outside of Tacoma, Wash., in August. He wants one more try at winning a NCAA Golf Championship.
“I’m in no hurry,” Henley said. “I’ll have a lot of years to play professional golf. I love playing at Georgia, and we still have some goals. I still have plenty to learn.”