AUGUSTA — The moment nearly got the best of Russell Henley.
Standing on the opening tee box at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday morning, the 23-year-old surveyed the scene as chill bumps covered his arms. Henley stood on the other side of the ropes not too long ago, cheering on his heroes as they played the Masters.
The Macon boy turned Georgia All-American turned PGA Tour winner imagined what it would feel like to hit a drive on the first hole at the Masters.
The dream didn’t prepare him for reality.
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“Everybody clapping, it just kind of hit me all of a sudden that I’m here,” Henley said. “I was just kind of like, ‘Whoa, I’m the one inside now, and I made it,’ and it felt really good. I had to fight off a few tears, but I did, and I was ready to go.”
Those nerves pestered him for a few holes, but Henley fought through them to shoot an even-par 72.
“I’m hitting the ball great, so I feel great about my game, and I feel like that’s probably what I should have shot (Thursday) was a 72,” Henley said. “I did get lucky on a few, but I felt pretty good about (the round).”
Henley’s round was punctuated by a par-saving 45-foot putt on No. 18. He hit his drive into the trees lining the right side of the 18th fairway and couldn’t get his punch shot completely out to the fairway. His approach rolled well back to the middle of the green with the pin tucked on the top shelf.
“I could barely see it go in,” Henley said. “It was a good one. ... I just told myself over and over, ‘I really want to make par. I want to make par.’ I kept trying to think positive. Right before I walked up to my putt, I said, ‘I want to make this putt.’ Just tried to reinforce some positive thoughts, and when I do that, it seems like more things happen good than not.”
The par putt prevented Henley from finishing the same way he started.
Henley hit his opening tee shot into the right fairway bunker on No. 1 and scrambled to make bogey after hitting the ball over the green on his second shot. He bogeyed the second hole, as well, failing to make par on the par-5 second hole after coming within 40 yards of the green in two shots.
The former Stratford standout came up short of the green on the short par-4 3rd hole, as well, needing to make a par putt.
“I short-sided myself again, twice in the first three holes, and to get up-and-down there was nice,” Henley said. “It felt good to roll it in the middle. A tough little 3-footer there.”
Henley, who will turn 24 on Friday, settled down with the putt on No. 3 and played solid golf during the next dozen holes.
He hit a tough chip on the par-3 6th hole inside of a few feet for par. Henley got to the par-5 eighth hole in two shots, converting a tap-in birdie after missing an eagle putt from inside of 8 feet. He made another birdie on the ninth hole to finish the front nine at even par.
Henley continued to par through his back nine until he hit his tee shot on the par-5 15th hole left. His punch shot layup struck a tree and shot directly right into the fairway. He recovered and stuck his approach shot to 12 feet and made the birdie putt to get to 1 under.
“It was a lucky break,” Henley said. “I hit an awful punch out and got lucky. I’ll take all the breaks I can get.”
Just three shots out of the lead at the time, Henley found the 17th green in regulation. He missed a tough putt from about 30 feet and missed the par putt coming back from about 6 feet sending him back to even-par.
Henley looked poised to drop another shot and finish bogey-bogey by hitting his third shot short of the pin on No. 18. The ball trickled back to about 45 feet away from the hole. The putt didn’t break a ton, and Henley buried it in the center of the cup.
“That putt was so big, so big,” Henley’s caddie Todd Gjesvold said. “I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to finish bogey-bogey,’ and that putt (he made) isn’t even an easy two-putt. But that’s Russell Henley for you.”