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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Russell Henley always had been able to putt with the best of them.
In two of his first three years on the PGA Tour he ranked eighth in Strokes Gained: Putting. But even Henley concedes he needs a gentle reminder from time to time and so he created a reminder on his phone that pops up mid-morning and says, “I’m a great putter.”
“I don’t have many reminders, but that’s one of them,” he said.
It worked like a charm on a steamy Thursday morning as Henley made an eagle and six birdies en route to a bogey-free 8-under 62 to grab the first-round lead at the Wyndham Championship.
Henley, 32, was stuck in neutral early, making four pars to start his round, but that’s about when his mind-morning reminder kickstarted his day. He drilled his second shot from 184 yards at the par-5 fifth hole to 5 feet and sank the eagle putt. He followed that up with consecutive birdies, draining a 32-foot putt at the sixth and chipping in at No. 7.
“Just kind of things got going there,” he said.
Henley finished on a high note too, carding birdies at three of his final four holes, including ramming in a 20-foot putt at the last.
“Definitely glad it hit the hole. I lost a little focus there. I think everybody’s about to pass out at this point, it’s so hot,” he said. “Growing up in the south, I guess I should be used to it.”
For the past few seasons, Henley’s ability with his short stick had been in steep decline. His ranking the past three seasons in SG: Putting tell a sad story: No. 162 in 2019, No. 138 in 2020 and No. 85 this season. His confidence was so dented that he turned his daily reminder off of his phone.
“It was making me mad because I wasn’t putting well, but I put it back on recently,” he said. “Maybe I need to keep it there.”
Russell Henley lines up a putt on the 17th green during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Torrey Pines Golf Course. (Photo: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
Henley has been working with putting instructor Ramon Bescansa and using the Perfect Putter training aid. On Thursday, he gained more than two strokes on the field with his putter. He was quick to point out that the 32-foot putt at six and the 20-footer at 18 paled in comparison to the twisting 13-foot birdie he holed at No. 11.
“I saw it perfectly and broke both ways and went in,” Henley said. “That was pretty cool.”
Early in his career, Henley struggled with inconsistency with his ball striking, especially off the tee. But ever since he began working with noted instructor Jim McLean, Henley’s become one of the better ballstrikers, with more fairways translating into hitting better approach shots. (He ranked third last season and fourth this season in Strokes Gained: approach the green.)
The trio of Michael Thompson (No. 128), Ted Potter Jr. (No. 181) and Sung Kang (No. 188) are two strokes back after shooting 64s and desperate for a good finish in order to qualify for the FedEx Cup Playoffs, which begin next week. Asked how he keeps what’s at stake this week out of his mind, Thompson said, “It’s really hard. If I were to say that I’m not thinking about it, I’d be lying.”
Henley neither has the pressure of trying to lock up a playoff berth by finishing in the top 125 nor the fear of being demoted to the Korn Ferry Tour to worry about. The three-time Tour winner, most recently at the 2017 Shell Houston Open, entered the week at No. 46 in the FedEx Cup standings, but he’s still shooting to achieve some season-long goals.
“I want to make Tour Championship,” Henley said of the FedEx Cup finale reserved for the top 30 in the points standings, “and I want to win. I haven’t won in years, so I feel like as well as I’ve been playing, I feel like I’ve underachieved a little bit.”