HONOLULU — On the first day of Russell Henley’s new career as a PGA TOUR member, he shot a 63 at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
On the second, he shot another 63, setting a scoring record and watching highlights of himself on TV as if he was in a trance.
There would be a 67 Saturday and a share of the lead and another scoring record with rookie buddy Scott Langley. Henley wondered out loud if he was awake.
Sunday, Henley, a native of Macon and a former golfer at the University of Georgia, finished his demolition of Waialae Country Club and the first full-field event of the year with a third 63 and an improbable, impeccable performance.
The rookie sealed his win with birdies on the final five holes, setting a scoring record with his 24-under 256 total. That is the third-best in TOUR history. No one had ever finished lower than 260 here before, though when John Huston shot that in 1998, Waialae was a par 72 and he was 28 under par.
Henley, who made two prior starts on TOUR as an amateur, also tied Dustin Johnson atop the FedExCup standings with 500 points.
Tim Clark, trying desperately to catch Henley all day, birdied his last four holes and still lost ground. Clark also broke the record by one, firing his own 63 to finish at 259 and four shots clear of anyone else.
“Obviously I gave it all I had, and he just played phenomenal,” said Clark, who simply laughed on the 17th green when Henley matched his birdie. “I was very impressed with his demeanor right from the start. I could see he was comfortable in that situation, and obviously the guy that wins a tournament on the Web.com Tour as an amateur can handle big moments.”
Only Henley, 23 and a three-time Web.com winner, was not comfortable.
“That’s the most nervous I've ever been,” he admitted. “I couldn't feel my legs or my arms. They were just numb and just moving fast and I felt like I couldn't control them. But I’ve been in that situation before, just not quite as dramatic.”
And not worth $1,008,000. Before Sunday, Henley’s golf career consisted of growing up in Macon, Ga., dreaming of playing the Masters, seven collegiate wins at the University of Georgia and his Web.com success.
All seven of his top 10s last year came in the second half of the season. In his last four starts, he has three wins and his worst score is 70.
Still, to take that success straight to the PGA TOUR in his debut is mind-boggling. He shot 29 on the back nine to hold off Clark. No one else had a chance after Henley rallied from his first bogey in 51 holes with birdie at the turn Sunday.
His lead at that point was two over Clark, Langley and Charles Howell III, who eagled the ninth.
Howell (66—263) would tie for third — his seventh top-five finish here — with Matt Kuchar (65), Langley (70), Brian Stuard (65) and Chris Kirk (66).
Henley and Clark would take their battle outside, to some new, outrageous level.
Both birdied the 10th and Henley gave himself a three-shot cushion when he rammed in a 44-footer on the 14th.
Both birdied the final four, magically escaping two poor tee shots on the 16th. On the next, Clark just laughed at his nemesis’ brilliance. On the last, Henley finally let his emotions out with a huge uppercut after his final putt again found the heart of the hole.
“He just never seemed to put a foot wrong, and when he did, he made those par putts,” said Clark, who posted the lowest total of his career and still only managed his 11th runner-up finish. “That's when you know a guy is comfortable, when he's making those sort of 8- to 10-footers for par.”
Eventually, Henley was making everything. He pointed to his escape at the 16th, after hooking his hybrid off the tee, as the most critical point in his ridiculously good day.
“That swing from that tee is the most nervous I have ever been in my life,” he said. “I could not control my legs or my arms, and I just hit it, and it was into the sun, I couldn’t see it. I knew it was going left. For that ball to stay inbounds, I don’t know where OB was, but for me to have a shot towards the green was probably the best break I’ve ever had.”
From 160 yards out, he hit a pitching wedge over a 60-foot-high tree some 50 yards in front of him — “one of the best shots I’ve ever hit.” It stopped 12 feet from the pin and he drained yet another putt, after Clark hit an even better punch shot in that left him five feet for birdie.
There would be no more trouble, on yet another ideal day at Waialae. Henley never looked at a leaderboard and “pretended” he was trailing all day to keep himself aggressive.
He even scolded his caddie when he told him, on the 18th green, “When you make this, come over and give me a hug, all right?"
“I said, ‘Shut up, we’re not done playing golf yet,’” Henley recalled with a grin. “That was just kind of … I wouldn’t say discipline, but how determined I was to stay in the present and not let up and keep attacking until I got done. I don’t remember the rest.”
When he walked out of the scoring tent, he finally began to feel his legs again, and knew his life would never be the same. In large part, that was because of his Web.com struggles early last year, that he transformed into a spectacular streak that shows no signs of abating.
“For me, it (Web.com Tour) is everything,” Henley said. “Not everybody needs the experience before they get out here, but for me it’s probably the best thing for my golf game I’ve ever had to do. Learn to travel, learn what worked for me, learn how many practice rounds I need, depending on the course, learn how much sleep I need to get.
“I got used to the flow of a tournament, early-late, late-early, all those things are pretty big, and I learned at the very start, about the first 13 weeks, what didn't work. I played pretty awful in my opinion. I think I made like 15 grand, and the last 10 or 12 weeks was huge for me.”
Henley became the first rookie to win his first start as a member in 12 years and the first to win here in his first attempt since Bruce Lietzke in 1977.
He is the ninth golfer to make this tournament his first victory, a list that starts with Hawaii’s Ted Makalena in 1966 and had ended with Jerry Kelly in 2002 — until Sunday. Henley is also the youngest to win at Waialae.
His victory makes him exempt the rest of this year and 2014 and 2015. It also gets him into the Masters.
After what he did Sunday, who could keep him out?
“When he made that putt (on 17), I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this would be pretty special to be watching,’” Clark recalled. “Well, obviously I was watching it. But yeah, it's just nice to see. People come out here to see birdies and see exciting golf.”