Russell Henley cracked a smile as the sun set on an exhausting day in north Georgia.
After surviving 40 holes of golf in the near triple-digit heat at Hawk’s Ridge Golf Club outside of Cumming, the Macon native perked up at the mention of Pebble Beach.
The memories of a weeklong living dream from last June never stray far from his thoughts. The mention of that place or the U.S. Open guarantees a smile.
“The best week of my life,” the 22-year-old said.
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On that hot June day at Hawk’s Ridge, Henley earned a chance to relive those dreams, and the thought brought happiness.
Henley beat PGA Tour professional Jason Dufner on the fourth playoff hole June 6 to earn a return trip to the U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Congressional Country Club just outside of Washington, D.C.
“Not many amateurs get a chance to play in a U.S. Open, and I’m getting to play in two,” Henley said. “Pebble Beach was special. This one will be too.”
Not many amateurs have qualified for consecutive U.S. Opens, and even fewer have done so through qualifying tournaments rather than automatic bids through strong finishes at United States Golf Association amateur tournaments.
The Henley that will take the course Thursday, however, isn’t the same golfer who shared a chest-bump with his caddie brother following a memorable chip-in eagle and went on to earn low-amateur honors in a tie for 16th place.
“I think he has grown a lot in the last year,” Georgia head men’s golf coach Chris Haack said recently. “He has the confidence from last year, but he also has some struggles from his senior season that helped him become a better player.”
Henley experienced new highs following last year’s U.S. Open. He was a consensus top-five amateur worldwide, and he earned the top spot on the Scratch Players’ world amateur rankings. The strong finish at Pebble Beach earned him worldwide attention, and he could no longer travel to tournaments and play in anonymity. He didn’t have much of that after he won back-to-back Georgia Amateur Championships and claimed SEC and NCAA regional championships. But he became the headline player, with tournaments such as the prestigious Dogwood Invitational and the Porter Cup benefiting from the attention associated with his participation.
The travel commitments, however, appeared to take a toll.
He left Pebble Beach and immediately traveled to Northern Ireland and led the U.S. to a win in the Palmer Cup. He found himself in the top five at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational before faltering.
Week after week Henley played, and eventually the results were no longer satisfactory.
He struggled in the U.S. Amateur -- one of the few tournaments he dreamed of winning -- during stroke play and didn’t advance to the match play portion.
“He played a lot of golf last year,” said brother Adam Henley, who will caddie for his brother again this year at the U.S. Open.
He won the Brickyard Collegiate in October, but he struggled during the early part of his senior season.
Henley didn’t turn his game around completely until a late March tournament in Greensboro.
Haack and Henley worked together on simplifying his swing, and the results paid off immediately. Haack walked up to Henley’s parents before the final round and told them, “Your son is back.”
Henley finished sixth in his next tournament -- the SEC Championship -- and finished just three shots out of first.
After the SEC Championship, Henley earned a spot in the Nationwide Tour’s Stadion Classic at UGA. It was Henley’s second appearance in the event. Henley went on to win the event, becoming the second amateur in Nationwide Tour history to win. With the win, the national headlines returned.
“It’s hard to put into words what Russell did here,” Haack said, “but the fact that only one other guy has done it, should say a lot.”
Henley again struggled with his swing on the final day of the NCAA Regional in Denver and during the stroke play portion of the NCAA Championships at Oklahoma State’s difficult home course. He shot a 79 in the final round and finished tied for 74th, his worst career finish at the national tournament.
Not to be dismayed, he and Haack went back to work following the 79 and made a simple alteration to shorten up his swing. The fix worked, and Henley won all three match play matches as Georgia lost to Augusta State in the national championship match.
“I felt like I played really well in match play, so I think I could carry some momentum from that,” Henley said.
That momentum immediately carried over to Hawk’s Ridge -- which came the next day after Georgia’s loss to Augusta State -- and Henley shot 68-65 to finish tied with Dufner. Henley beat Dufner on the fourth sudden-death playoff hole when Dufner hit an approach on a par 5 into the water.
“I think you could see the confidence has continued to grow in him,” Adam Henley said. “He was already pretty confident, and then he took what he did at Pebble Beach and just built on it. I think that’s why Pebble Beach is so memorable. Russell has been a great golfer for a long time, but the U.S. Open was our first chance to see what he could do on the biggest stage. He proved it again (in the Nationwide win). But that next level of confidence started at Pebble Beach.”