PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL – One of those crazy PGA TOUR Sundays evolved all around young Russell Henley at the 2014 Honda Classic and he certainly did his part in contributing to the drama and then emerging from it.
Like Rory McIlroy, who lost the lead with a double-bogey and a bogey on the way home on Sunday, Henley hit his ball at the 15th hole into the water to negate the beautiful chip-in for birdie he had at the 14th.
But once those two inevitably ended up in a playoff for the Honda title with Ryan Palmer and Russell Knox, it was Henley who was able to emerge the most calm from the madness and hit the necessary shot to win. He will return to PGA National February 23-March 1 to defend his title against a world class field with those fond memories.
Henley nailed a five-wood to become the only player to reach the 18th green in two in the playoff and then two-putted for birdie to secure his second PGA TOUR victory. In doing so, he became one of just three golfers under the age of 25 to have won twice on the TOUR. McIlroy and Harris English are the others.
"This doesn't feel real," Henley said.
For a while, it was kind of unreal out there as the Honda shook over blunder after blunder on the closing holes that made it anybody's tournament to win.
Take Henley. The first time around on the 18th, he hit his second shot way left of the green and then chunked the chip, barely making par to get into the playoff. The next time around, he aimed a little further right and cleared the front bunker to land 40-feet from the hole. A two-putt was good enough to win because McIlroy, Palmer and Knox could only make par.
"I just said, 'All these guys are probably going to make birdie.' And I just needed to trust my swing and put the best swing I can on it and not be too worried about where it goes," Henley said."One thing I've always tried to do is embrace the pressure and crave it, and I feel like I do crave it. I think the more you can embrace the butterflies, I guess you would say, and that feeling, the better you're going to deal with it.
"So I look forward to that feeling, and coming down the stretch, I think it's just having a good perspective for me. I feel like I had fun playing. If I stop having fun playing the game, and if I get into a situation like that where I worked so hard to get there, into the final group on a Sunday and I don't enjoy it.....I feel like something's probably wrong, and that was kind of my main focus.I think if you embrace the nerves and all that, and try to have a good time with it, you're probably going to do a little better."
The Honda went to a playoff because McIlroy missed a 12-footer for eagle on the 18th that would have won the tournament in regulation. The current World No. 1 lost his focus down the stretch. He started with a two-shot lead and closed with a 74. McIlroy was still in decent shape on the 16th hole, when he tried to hit 6-iron out of the bunker and over the water, caught too much sand and went in the lake for double bogey. Still tied for the lead, he went long on the 17th and failed to save par from the bunker. Down to his last shot, he delivered the best one of the day -- a 5-wood from 236 yards that landed 12 feet from the hole. But his eagle putt for the win just slid by on the right and on the playoff hole McIlroy hit his second shot into the back bunker.
Palmer was the only player in the final six groups on Sunday to break par. He had a 69. But he also missed putts inside eight feet on the last five holes, including a five-footer for par on the 18th that would have won it in regulation. In the playoff, he missed a 10-foot birdie putt to the left.
Knox needed a birdie in regulation for a chance to win, and instead went from the bunker to deep rough to over the green before making a 10-foot par putt to get into the playoff. He was the only player to lay up in the playoff, and he missed a 20-foot birdie attempt.
So that's how Henley was the only man left standing as darkness engulfed PGA National's Champion course and strained the strobe lights trying to illuminate him for his Champion's trophy pictures.
"It's probably bigger than has sunk in," he said. "I definitely wanted to win again, ever since I won the first time, just to make myself feel like, you know, that first win wasn't just a one-week thing.
"And now that I've won again, I think I'll feel a little bit better about my first one. It makes me feel very confident, like I'm supposed to be out here kind of feeling. I guess it's just the competitive nature of the game and you just want to keep doing it to prove to yourself over and over that you can keep doing it. That's the fun of it."
Henley's up and down Honda experience on Sunday last year was kind of typical of his game. He has had to learn to reduce the bad shots and deal with them better when they happen. It has been his main focus even since winning The Honda last March.
"Yeah, one of my main things I've been trying to do is just keep a good attitude, keep even keel when things don't go my way," Henley said. "I know I'm going to hit bad shots. That was my main thing. I hit a bad shot there and made a bad swing, but how can I just try to keep a good attitude and go out there and hit a good next shot and give myself a good putt." Henley found his victory in The Honda to be a bit different than his first win at the 2013 Sony Open in Hawaii.
"Compared to my first win, I don't know that I was completely ready to deal with it the first time around," he said. "I definitely wasn't expecting to win right out of the gate.
So last time I won, I was so pumped up about getting into Augusta and just really wanted to go back home and celebrate.
"This time after winning, I wanted to try to get back in that situation again. I want to keep practicing. I'm excited to keep working on my game. The morning (after winning The Honda), I woke up at 6:00 and got out there and played an early nine and got some work in.
"I don't know if that means I'm growing up; hopefully not too much. But being on TOUR will teach you a lot about who you are and what you need to do with your game; what works, what doesn't work. I think the experience is huge for me. Golf is so hard that nobody knows for sure if they are going to keep anything going. I know I can control my work ethic and my attitude, and hopefully I can keep those consistent."
The 2015 Honda Classic will be played February 23-March 1, 2015 with Henley defending his title against World No. 1 Rory McIlroy and a world class field. The Honda awarded a record $2.55 million in charitable contributions in 2014, the eighth straight year the event has increased its charitable distribution to South Florida Children's Charities. The tournament also attracted 193,052 confirmed spectators between Tuesday's practice round and Sunday's dramatic finish.
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