PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Russell Henley walked down the path Saturday away from the cliff that splits the fairway from the green on No. 8 at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
As he closed in on the green, the large spectator stands overlooking the hole erupted with cheers as if the Macon native stuck the ball right next to the pin. He didn’t. His approach into the par-4 hole found the greenside rough.
But it didn’t matter to the fans there or the fans who grouped alongside every fairway whether or not Henley made a great shot. Many of them have been converted into Henley fans.
“It’s surreal,” Henley said. “I don’t know how they know me or why they cheer for me. But it feels really good when people are pulling for you. I just wish I could let every one of them know how much this has meant to me.”
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The energy Henley received from the crowds helped propel the 21-year-old amateur to his best round at the U.S. Open.
Henley shot a 1-over-par 72 on Saturday, and he is 6 over for the tournament. The top 15 finishers receive an exemption into next year’s U.S. Open, and he is in contention for that distinction.
Henley made five birdies Saturday — he had four total through the first two rounds — to go with six bogeys. But not one of the bogeys bothered him during or following the round. He approached many of the holes and received cheers walking up to the green. On others, a simple wave and smile got the crowd clapping and cheering. The reception seemed more fitting for a player leading the tournament instead of an amateur making his debut of golf’s grandest stage.
“Just to have one day like this is more than I can ever ask,” Henley said.
After Henley missed a birdie putt on No. 18, he looked to the sky before tapping in for par and a 72. He said that he was thinking, “What a day.”
The day was anything but boring for those watching the Georgia junior.
He started his third round just like the second by bogeying the first two holes. He followed that with 7-foot birdie putts on Nos. 3 and 4.
The birdies set Henley off on his best stretch of the tournament. He followed the birdies with a 15-footer for par on No. 5 and tapped in for birdie on No. 6 following a nice chip from the fringe.
The rest of the round stayed up and down, with a long par save on No. 8, a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 10 mixed in with some bogeys. The birdie on No. 10 was the first time he avoided a bogey on the hole.
By that birdie, however, Henley was smiling ear-to-ear with nearly every step up every fairway.
“I think in the back of our minds, we really just wanted to make the cut,” brother and caddie Adam Henley said. “Now, we just wanted to have as much fun as possible.”
Russell Henley added a 25-foot birdie on No. 15 that again had him looking to the sky. He also got up and down on the tough 17th hole after hitting his tee shot under the spectator stands.
“It didn’t matter if I made a 9 or a 10,” Henley said. “I just enjoyed myself. I stopped doubting my putts. I decided to just hit the putts the way I wanted to. It was the first time this week that happened.”
From the hundreds of fans cheering him on at nearly every hole to the 20 children waiting off the 18th green for his autograph, Henley has become a player who has built a nice little cheering section this week.
Just after his round, Henley tossed some balls and tees to children near the 18th green.
One of the workers at the 18th scoreboard said, “I wish more players were like him.”
The security guard watching the gate as Henley signed autographs for the 20 or so people waiting there said he was the first player he had seen this week sign autographs there. One young fan kept screaming, “Russell, we love you.”
Henley just smiled and said, “I love you, too.”
He then looked at someone next to him and said, “Isn’t this the craziest thing you’ve ever seen?”