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Russell Henley was the story at the Sony Open, the first full-field event of the 2013 PGA Tour season. With his first PGA Tour win, the 23-year-old Georgia native is headed to his first Masters.
Meanwhile, half a world away in South Africa, Louis Oosthuizen was making a statement of his own with an impressive victory at the Volvo Champions in Durban. After his second-place finish at last year's Masters, he will have much to say to any of the contenders come April at the first major of the year.
|Russell Henley birdied seven of the last 10 holes, including the last five in a row, to claim his first PGA Tour win Sunday at the Sony Open of Hawaii at Waialae Country Club.|
Tim Clark has his eyes set on the Masters, too. The 2006 runner-up at Augusta National must feel good about his future, especially after his second at the Sony.
I know, I know. It's a little early to talk about the Masters. But most of the players probably started this week in Hawaii while thinking about Georgia. Just ask the Talented Mr. Henley.
During the 2012 PGA Tour season, I got to know two rookies, Brian Harman and Harris English, who were teammates at the University of Georgia.
I enjoyed talking to them about our shared love of our home state, especially Bulldogs football. So I was very pleased when they both performed well enough to retain their cards for this season.
Yet, I always felt like there was somebody missing from our discussions.
His name was Russell Henley from Macon, Ga. After winning the 2011 Stadion Classic at UGA on the Web.com Tour as a senior at Georgia, I was sure that he was going to be the one at the top of the 2012 rookie class.
But then he didn't even make it to the final stage of Q-school.
Now, after a three-shot win at the Sony Open, the 23-year-old son of a physician is the talk of professional golf and the early leader for rookie of the year honors.
Starting his first event as a PGA Tour member with a pair of 7-under 63s at the Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, Henley shot his third 63 in Sunday's final round that included five straight birdies to cap a back-nine 29. He held off a surging Tim Clark, who also had a 63 on Sunday to close at 21-under par.
Henley's 24-under 256 total was the third-lowest 72-hole score in PGA Tour history and the lowest in history by a rookie. At the 2003 Valero Open, Tommy Armour III set the mark at 254.
"I think a year on the Web.com Tour really helped prepare me for this week," said Henley, who won twice on the developmental circuit last year.
With the win, Henley earned a trip to the Masters, which is just a 2½ hour drive from where he grew up playing at the Idle Hour Country Club, a tight Donald Ross course that first opened in 1912.
"I don't really know what happened, honestly," Henley said. "This is the most nervous I've ever been. That's the hardest thing I've ever done. It's been my goal to make it to the Masters my whole life. I'm kind of speechless right now."
In many ways, Henley reminds me of a young David Duval, who played a season on the Web.com Tour in 1994 before joining the regular tour a year later.
At the time, Duval was a free-swinging, all-everything out of Georgia Tech. But to everybody's surprise, he had to do a year on the junior circuit. When he came out to the big tour in 1995, he quickly established himself with eight top-10s, yet the Jacksonville, Fla. native wouldn't notch his first win until two years later.
So Henley has already bested Duval's rookie year with a victory.
A seven-time winner at Georgia, Henley beat three other Georgians on Sunday: Charles Howell III, Chris Kirk and English, who each had top-10s this week at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
Henley has tons more work to equal Howell's impressive career money earnings of over $23 million, but the rookie is already halfway to the Augusta native's two-win total.
Come April, Henley could be the only Georgian from this group to make the trip down Magnolia Lane. With the putting display he put on at Waialae, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him tame those slick Augusta National greens and make his home state proud.
Tim Clark elbowed his way back to the top this week in Hawaii.
Henley needed eight birdies to beat Clark on Sunday at the Sony Open. Clark, the 37-year-old winner of the 2010 Players Championship, appears to be back to 100 percent and on top of his game after losing most of 2011 to an elbow injury.
The tenacity that helped make up for his modest length off the tee (276.7-yard average) was on display as he battled Henley down the stretch with four closing birdies to finish off a 63 to force the issue with the rookie.
The Sony Open marked Clark's 11th career second-place finish. The South African finished last year off with a second at the Wyndham Championship and a tie for 10th at The Barclays.
Before his elbow injury shut down his 2011 season, he had a tie for second in the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club.
"I've been everywhere the last three years except the electric chair."
-- John Daly
|Of the 74 players who made the Sony Open cut, John Daly finished last at 4-over, but he did shoot a final-round 67.|
Candor is one of Big John's best virtues. It's no secret that Daly has gone through enough liquor, women, casinos and weight issues to fill several memoirs in his more than two decades on the PGA Tour. Yet, he's still battling year after year to eke out a living on tour.
Golf has given Daly some constancy during some very turbulent times.
After finishing 146th on the 2012 PGA Tour money list, the 46-year-old, two-time major champion has conditional status this year on tour. At the Sony Open, he made the cut on the number, but limped home on the weekend with a 79 and 67 to finish 74th.
We might see Daly's colorful clothes, honest and long drives 20 times this year on tour, including at upcoming West Coast swing events at Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach.
On Friday at the Volvo Champions in South Africa, Louis Oosthuizen won a car in the pro-am portion of the European Tour event, but he swapped it for an excavator for his farm on the southern coast of the country.
Then on Sunday, he shot a 6-under 66 at the Durban Country Club to come from five shots back to win his sixth European Tour title. The win vaulted him to a career-best fourth in the world.
Since his second-place finish at the Masters in 2012, the 30-year-old former Open Championship winner has had two victories and another 10 top-10s around the world.
Oosthuizen's game travels. He's not afraid to play well in the States. He should be considered one of the favorites at Augusta in April, and any time he tees it up on the PGA Tour.
He could be one of the giant killers of 2013.