AUGUSTA -- Macon native Russell Henley might be making his Masters debut this week at Augusta National Golf Club.
But the former Stratford and Georgia standout has handled major tournament pressure before with two appearances in the U.S. Open as an amateur. He said Monday that should help him with his preparation for his first appearance in the Masters.
“I think any time you can play in front of that many people, it gives you good experience,” Henley said. “This one is a little bit different. It feels like (the fans) are a little bit closer to you, and it feels like there’s a lot more people. But I like that. I think it just adds so much more excitement and makes everybody kind of, when they can get that close, a part of the tournament, and I think that’s what’s so special about this place.”
Henley played in the U.S. Open in 2010 at Pebble Beach and 2011 at Congressional Country Club, finishing tied for 16th and tied for 42nd, respectively. His 2010 finish was tied for the low amateur that week.
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Henley earned his spot in this week’s tournament by winning this year’s Sony Open in his first tournament as a member of the PGA Tour. He became the first player since 2001 to win on the PGA Tour in his first event, setting the tournament record with a 24-under-par 256.
He’s hoping his strong play and confidence in his game can help him overcome his nerves this week.
“I haven’t felt like nerves like I did (Monday), not even about how I was going to play, but just the excitement of being here and knowing I’m a contestant is a feeling like I’ve never had,” he said. “I’ve played two majors, played some PGA Tour events, and those are definitely nerve-wracking at times. But something about walking around here and just knowing the history and just knowing how much it means to me adds to the excitement.”
Henley played a practice round Monday with eight-time major championship winner Tom Watson, who won the Masters twice, and Nathan Smith, an amateur. Henley said he would play with Smith again Tuesday and hopes to be joined by Tim Clark, a South African, whose biggest win to date was the 2010 Players Championship.
Henley said he will play in Wednesday’s Par-3 tournament with Smith and Watson and that they will play in the group behind Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
He is using the first three days this week to get relaxed and ready for Thursday when the tournament begins.
“I heard a lot of, ‘Go Dogs,’ ’’ Henley said of Monday’s practice round. “That was cool. I heard one, ‘Go Jackets.’ I didn’t really get that one. I have a lot of friends here, a lot came into town, some I haven’t seen in a while. It was pretty special seeing them. I was just kind of looking for them here and there. I just wanted them to enjoy as much as I did, and I think they did. I’m trying to soak in being here, soak in the fans, soak in throwing some kids a golf ball or whatever, hitting balls in front of this many people, playing with guys like Tom Watson. Just the whole excitement of it all, I’m trying to get used to that and just kind of get that almost out of the way to where I’m more familiar with it in the next three days so when tournament time starts, I’m ready to go and I’m not trying to goof off too much. I’m right there ready to play some golf.
“So it definitely is going to be like any other tournament I’ve played and more excitement, for sure, but I’ll do my best to try to kind of get used to it.”