PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Younger, faster, stronger, or at least in golf’s case more prepared.
There’s a reason why 15 players under the age of 30 accounted for 19 wins on the PGA TOUR in 2012, and two weeks into 2013 it looks like that number isn’t going down anytime soon.
Of the 2012 group, a half-dozen are 26 or younger.
Russell Henley, who set a couple of scoring records on his way to winning the Sony Open in Hawaii on Sunday, is just 23.
Age is just a number these days, mostly because players are more prepared than they’ve ever been by the time they get to the big stage.
Take Henley. In 2010, he was awarded the Haskins Award as the nation’s top collegiate golfer. A year later he won on the Web.com Tour while still an amateur at the University of Georgia. He won twice more on the Web.com Tour last year and was on his way.
“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,” Henley said of his year on the Web.com Tour. “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, what didn't work. I played pretty awful in my opinion.”
It’s not opinion, it was fact. Henley didn’t make it to the weekend in seven of his first 13 starts (six missed cuts, one WD).
The rest of the year? He missed two cuts and seven top 10s, including those two wins, both of which came in extra holes.
Fast forward to last week at Waialae, where Henley was first in strokes gained-putting, second in greens in regulation and eighth in fairways hit.
“Watching Russell play, it just seems like there's nothing he can do wrong,” said Tim Clark, who had a front-row seat as he tried to catch Henley. “The putts he made, the confidence he played with, the maturity he played with. Just seems like the sky's the limit for him.
“He just never seemed to put a foot wrong, and when he did, he made those par putts. That's when you know a guy is comfortable, when he's making those 8-10 footers for par.”
Still, Clark put up a good fight, birdieing each of his last four holes. Except Henley birdied his last five. Wow.
THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. It was quite Crenshaw-esque, but Russell Henley had a hunch at Waialae, telling his caddie earlier in the week as he walked up the ninth hole, “I feel like I'm playing great right now, and I think something good is going to happen soon.” Henley said he felt like he picked up right where he left off on the Web.com Tour. Well, his last four starts there went like this: win, third, win, tie for sixth. “I kind of carried over my confidence,” he added. “And here I am.
2. A big reason Henley isn’t disappearing anytime soon: His putting, which reminds me a lot of Brandt Snedeker, even down to his pre-stroke routine. Snedeker of course led the PGA TOUR in putting last year. As good as Henley has rolled it going all the way back to his high school days, he spent his offseason hitting at least “a couple hundred” putts a day. “I've been focusing really hard on my putting,” he said. “Doing drills and trying to shoot under par on a nine‑hole putting contest against myself.” He certainly won the putting contest against everyone else at Waialae.
3. Among the benefits of winning, Henley locks up his card for the next two years. He also earned a spot in THE PLAYERS Championship, Masters and PGA Championship. For a kid who grew up in Georgia, going to the Masters with family friends, the Augusta invite will be particularly special. “We'd stop at Krispy Kreme, where I think Phil (Mickelson) had stopped before,” Henley said. “I remember we would walk up to the ropes and we'd touch the grass with our hands. I remember seeing these rolling hills of green and seeing the guys hit the shots and just being so amazed at the whole experience, the smell, the environment of it. It was just the biggest deal for me just to get to go.” Now he’ll be on the other side of those ropes.
4. Tim Clark has come miles since his elbow injury two years ago and subsequent tendinitis that hampered him much of last year. “It's been a long road,” said Clark, who still does physical therapy work on the arm. There also had to be a little bit of sweetness to his runner-up at the Sony Open in Hawaii because that’s where his problems began two years ago. “Final round today meant a lot,” he said. “To be able to stay calm and feel like I had a chance to win here, I do feel like I'm back."
5. Stat of the Week I: Henley led all players with 26 birdies, but he got there in part thanks to that putter with one-putts on 33 of his 72 holes, including seven of them on the back nine Sunday.
6. Stat of the Week II: Henley’s 72-hole total of 256 broke the tournament scoring mark of 260 set by John Huston in 1998 and matched by Brad Faxon in 2001.
7. Stat of the Week IIa: Henley’s 256 is the third-lowest 72-hole total (tied with Mark Calcavecchia/2001 Phoenix Open). Tommy Armour III posted a total of 254 (26 under) at the 2003 Valero Texas Open, while Steve Stricker posted a 255 at the 2009 Bob Hope Classic.
8. The worst-kept secret in golf was announced Monday morning with Rory McIlroy officially moving to Nike (terms of the contract weren't disclosed). It’s a head-to-toe deal for McIlroy with every club in his bag also coming from the Swoosh, including a Nike Method 006 prototype putter.
9. As for the move, the technology today, as pointed out by Golf World equipment guru E. Michael Johnson, is such that these equipment switches aren’t as big as they used to be because, in short, all the equipment is very good and very close to one another. In other words, I don’t think McIlroy will struggle one bit with the change.
QUOTES OF THE WEEK
"I've got a guy who moved out west. I’m like, 'What are you doing for a living?' 'I'm working at a ski resort.' 'I'm like, 'What do you do there?' 'I just put all the extra rented equipment up when they get done.' 'I'm thinking, I could never see myself doing that. It makes me definitely appreciate what I’m doing a lot more.'" -- Russell Henley on his dream job playing on the PGA TOUR before winning in a dream performance Sunday.
“I can take away a lot, just the more and more you can put yourself in this position, the better off you're going to be.” -- Scott Langley, who began the final round tied with Henley before shooting even-par 70 to finish in a tie for third. Remember that quote. Langley will win on TOUR, maybe this year.
TWEETS OF THE WEEK
@TigerWoods: Whoa dude, is that your real hair @McIlroyRory? Welcome to #TeamNike. -- Tiger Woods, echoing a line from their new Nike commercial together
@GaryPlayer: Congratulations @RussHenleyGolf on your fantastic first victory on the @PGATOUR in the @SonyOpen in Hawaii. My best throughout the season. -- Henley gets his first win, and a congrats note from a legend.
Who’s the Web.com Tour graduate most likely to win on the PGA TOUR in 2013? -- Eric Hyland
Well, Russell Henley just answered the question for you. He won’t be the last guy to do it, though. As I said earlier, I think Langley could. I could also see Robert Streb or Justin Hicks contending. Hicks led the Web.com Tour in greens in regulation, was seventh in driving accuracy and 17th in putting.
In the last few years, has the change to conforming grooves been a huge change for TOUR players? -- Michael Bonicatto
I always go back to what one TOUR player told me: You give these guys six months, and they’ll figure out whatever the equipment change is, whether it was the conforming grooves, or the putter. And the stats have, by and large, backed that up.
FORWARD SPIN: WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK
The TOUR hits the mainland this week with the start of the West Coast Swing beginning with the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation. Birdies are plentiful at PGA West, where “golf in a dome” is the phrase most often associated with Palm Springs. Pat Perez ranked 41st last year in total birdies, which is one reason to like his chances. He’s also won there before, which is another. And he’s playing well at the moment, having ended 2012 on a high note and begun 2013 with a top-10 finish last week.