Sapakoff: Henley’s windy 71 is a great round for a Masters guinea pig
AUGUSTA, Ga. – With the sun just sneaking up above the pines, Chapin Henley pulled an acquaintance aside in a sparse gallery.
“Not everybody gets to say this,” the retired Macon, Ga., physician said Thursday morning at Augusta National Golf Club. “My son is leading the Masters.”
Ah, the advantages of being first off the tee and carding a few early birdies.
Usually, that is.
But Thursday was anything but typical at Augusta, where a gust of wind (some as high as 35 mph) met every well-intended golf shot. That makes Russell Henley’s opening-round 71 a feat fit for framing. The 27-year-old Charleston resident not only managed steady strangeness, he and Daniel Summerhays were the 8 a.m. guinea pigs.
The answers were blowin’ in the wind all day.
How to handle it, that was the question.
“I would say just being able to flight the ball lower than the tree line and just control my distances,” Henley said. “I feel like I left myself in a really bad spot maybe once or twice, but the rest of the day I was hitting it in spots where I could score and make pars. And I made a couple putts.”
Add that Henley wasn’t just dealing with wind, but a whirlwind. Sunday morning, he was not qualified for the Masters. He was planning a week off.
He woke up three shots behind after three rounds at the Shell Houston Open. Ten birdies later, Henley won with a sizzling final-round 65, three shots clear of Sung Kang. Prizes included a check for $1,260,000 and the 93rd (and final) spot in the 2017 Masters field.
That meant some scrambling for Augusta housing and practice times while family members, friends and fellow University of Georgia grads set out in search of patron’s badges.
Not that anyone in the Henley camp is complaining.
A windy Amen Corner
“Obviously, I won last week and I’m feeling confident,” said Henley, who now has three PGA Tour victories. “But I was just excited to go out there and play. I feel like I can play well on this course right now.”
Thursday’s wind would have been worse, golfers agreed, if not for Wednesday’s rain softening the course.
Still, there is a reason why some experts forecast no opening rounds under 71.
No. 11 was brutal, particularly the elevated second shots on the 505-yard par 4 White Dogwood hole.
Straight into the wind.
Summerhays’ effort “kind of ballooned,” Henley said.
Henley opted for a 5-iron from 200 yards. The ball skipped 25 yards past the pin.
“So I don’t know what happened there,” he said. “I think it might have just stopped. I just think it gets tricky down there going around those trees and whatnot.”
‘Oscillating’ golf balls
Henley came bursting out of “Amen Corner” with birdies on Nos. 12, 13 and 14. He just missed birdie putts at 15 and 16.
Henley, his black Nike jacket rippling in the wind, consulted with caddie Todd Gjesvold before most tee and fairway shots.
The dance: Step up to the ball, step back, step up again.
“A couple times the ball was oscillating,” Henley said. “I don’t know how to spell oscillating, but I heard people say that.”
Despite the sometimes unpredictable wind, the Augusta trend is blowing in the right direction for Henley. He missed the cut as a Masters rookie in 2013. He finished tied for 31st in 2014 and 21st in 2015 (Henley didn’t qualify last year).
“This being my fourth one, I feel comfortable,” Henley said, “as comfortable as you can feel. I’m just really enjoying it, enjoying the challenge.”
The guy has already made $1,260,000 in the past few days.
The weather is not likely to get worse.
He’s way up the leaderboard in Augusta.
Life is good for Russell Henley, and his dad.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff