PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Two days into his practice rounds at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Russell Henley is still having pinch-yourself moments just ahead of the start of the U.S. Open.
From the breathtaking scenery of the Pacific Ocean to playing alongside players he watches on television, the week so far has been overwhelming at times for the Macon native. But those moments haven’t done much to curtail his preparation for the start of the tournament, which begins Thursday.
“It’s still really surreal to be here,” the Georgia junior said. “I feel like I belong, but it’s still very surreal.”
Henley said the realization came on the first hole of his practice round Monday. Playing with Davis Love III, Henley steeped to the tee at No. 10 surrounded by more fans than he likely has ever played in front of.
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“That’s something I’ll never forget with the ocean right there and all of the people,” Henley said. “That’s one of those ‘Wow’ moments.”
Henley played his Tuesday practice round with 2009 U.S. Open winner Lucas Glover, PGA Tour pro Charles Warren and Georgia teammate Hudson Swafford, who like Henley won a sectional to earn a spot in the field.
The round remained light-hearted as the two Georgia players took on Glover and Warren, both Clemson products, in an informal match. The match stayed close for most of the round, but the professionals pulled away late for the win.
The players finished out the holes legitimately and then went about normal practice putting and chipping toward potential pin placements and reading the speed of the greens.
“I told (Georgia head coach Chris Haack) that they’re a lot better than we were at their age,” Warren said.
Along with battling the nuances of the course and its wind gusts, Henley is learning to adjust to U.S. Open conditions with fast greens, narrow fairways and tall rough. The 21-year-old experienced the rough first-hand on No. 14, when he played the ball all the way up the right side of hole in the rough. He never could advance the ball a significant length and eventually just picked the ball up and conceded the hole in the match play.
“You just have to take your medicine and punch out,” Henley said. “You just have to be smart and not let a hole ruin a round.”
Henley got his first taste of autograph seekers, who pro golfers encounter in nearly every practice round, during the past two days. Henley was stopped between a number of holes to sign hats and flags for children and adults.
“It’s kind of humorous, because I don’t really think they know who I am,” Henley said. “They just want an autograph from every player. It’s nice for them.”
Henley’s final preparation before the U.S. Open starts will be a nine-hole practice round today. He wasn’t sure when he would play, just that it would come in the afternoon. He said he expected to play with Brandt Snedeker, who finished third in the 2008 Masters.
Henley will make last-minute mental notes preparing for his first major championship. He said he has learned even more in his second practice round, and he anticipated that he’d gain even more knowledge before Thursday.
“There’s just so much more you don’t see on television, the undulations, how small the greens are,” Henley said. “You just learn every time you’re out there.”