10 years later, memories of first PGA win fresh for J.J. Henry
CROMWELL — Maybe it was the fact that he was sleeping in his old room, back in his old hometown. It was like being a kid again, remembering the times when golf was just a smoldering ember inside of J.J. Henry, when he’d take some old, sawed-down irons and hit ball after ball after ball off the sand dunes behind his parents’ house on Fairfield Beach Road.
He was back in Fairfield, back on familiar ground. It was relaxing. It was empowering.
The Fourth of July holiday was coming up, but Henry wasn’t here to watch the local fireworks display, he was here to try and make some of his own. The Buick Championship — formerly the Insurance City Open, the Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open, the Canon Greater Hartford Open and just the plain old GHO — was the weekly stop on the PGA Tour 2006 schedule. Henry, now an established veteran on the Tour, was looking to capture some lightning in a bottle and get his first PGA win.
Has it really been 10 years?
That week, Henry indeed found the lightning he had so desperately hoped to find. Sitting in solid position, just four shots back of Damron Stiles after two rounds, Henry blistered the 6,841-yard TPC River Highlands course, shooting a 7-under 63 to grab a two-shot lead after 54 holes.
Think he was going to let that slip through his fingers? In his home state? No way.
Henry’s final round of 3-under 67 was good enough to coast to a three-shot victory and the celebration in Cromwell could undoubtedly be heard all the way back in Fairfield.
“Hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” Henry, 41, said last week after playing in the 2016 Travelers Championship. “That’s kind of how it works out here. Sometimes you get out there when you least expect it and shoot a low round. You just never know, you just kind of have to hang in there and see what happens.”
That first win helped secure a spot on the 2006 Ryder Cup team, playing alongside Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. It allowed him to play in the Masters — and the other three 2007 majors as well. Not too bad for a kid who, when he wasn’t hitting balls in his parents’ backyard, he was at Grandpa Ron’s house on Round Hill Road, putting for hours on the putting green that Ron had constructed, honing his youthful skills, skills fine-tuned playing hundreds of rounds at the Patterson Club.
And even though it’s been 10 years, the fans continue to treat Henry as the conquering hero every time he returns.
“The support I get even to this day …” Henry said, pausing for a moment. “Whether it’s in the pro-am or teeing off today after they announce you. I was talking with my caddie as we were walking down 1 and I said to him, ‘No matter how you play here for the rest of your life, it’s cool to know that you’ve won here and they’ll always support you.’ I almost choked up thinking about it walking down that first hole because it’s so cool that the support that the people here in Connecticut give me.”
Back in 2006, that support reached a crescendo as Henry came to the tee box at 18 Sunday afternoon, holding a commanding three-shot lead.
“I was very at ease, at peace. I’d been out here for a while, it was my seventh year out here, so it wasn’t like I was just some Monday qualifier,” Henry said. “You have that one low round, that hot day when the putter feels good, you’re hitting it good and the next thing you know, you’re walking to the 72nd hole with a three shot lead.”
And that peace came from being back in very familiar surroundings.
“I stayed down at the beach and I drove up here every day,” he said. “I was just very at ease. A lot of times here I put extra pressure in myself because I want to play well and people are rooting for you, but for whatever reason, when I look back now, I was very at ease and everything came easy.”
And standing on the 18th tee box, on July 2, a three-shot lead in hand, Henry provided the fireworks everyone was hoping for. His caddie, Matt Hauser, handed Henry the driver and told him to have some fun and give it a rip. Henry did.
There was a cart path that used to cross the 18th hole, some 340 yards from the tee. Henry’s ball rocketed down the middle of the fairway and rolled beyond the cart path. A good 20 yards beyond the cart path.
“Yeah, I had a three-shot lead and ripped it,” Henry said. “It was downwind and I had just 85 yards to the front.”
As he walked down the fairway, Henry couldn’t help but pump his arms up and down, reacting to the roaring crowd. He approach shot to the green landed 17 feet from the pin and after he was safely in for par, Henry waved his hat and blew kisses to the fans.
“It was pretty awesome, huh?” Henry said.
Pretty awesome indeed. Even now, 10 years later.