Russell Henley’s birdie on the first playoff hole was the difference as he knocked out 54-hole leader Rory McIlroy, Russell Knox and Ryan Palmer for his second career victory at The Honda Classic at PGA National’s Champion Course in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Henley and the gang of four headed to the playoff after all of them posted eight-under-par 272 on Sunday. With darkness falling, Henley was the only member of the group to hit the par-five, No. 18 hole in two. His first putt left him three feet and his second clinched the title as Knox, Palmer and McIlroy all settled for pars. Henley claims victory No. 2 in his first 15 months on TOUR and the three others will evenly split second, third and fourth place monies.
Half way through the afternoon on Sunday there were golf fans everywhere yelling at their television sets, “Does ANYONE want to win this?” After beginning the day in the final group with 54-hole leader and two-time major champion Rory McIlroy, it was the OTHER 24-year old who ended up surviving a very trying Sunday at the Champion Course. After only making four bogeys in the first three rounds, Henley had a bit of nerves on Sunday as he made three bogeys and a double in a stretch of 10 holes (Nos. 6-15). But, he held his nerve and his putter kept lagging them tight, including a three-footer on the 72nd hole to make it a four-man playoff.
After winning his FIRST-ever TOUR event as a pro last January at the Sony Open, Henley’s rookie year didn’t take off the way gamers had hoped. The 23-year old played 23 more events after his inaugural victory and only found the top 10 two more times and added just two other top 25s. Golf is hard. In his last 10 starts of 2013 his best finish was T27. As 2013-14 geared up, gamers had to take into account multiple factors when putting their teams together and recent form is a large part of that. There wasn’t much to push Henley on to their radars. The talent is there; the form was not. As 2013-14 wrap-around season began, Henley did nothing to gain the attention of gamers. In his first nine events, he was cut four times and his best finish was 27th. That was in the 30-man HTOC. That form couldn’t have inspired gamers.
It’s a funny old game sometimes and there’s a reason I have a section called “horses-for-courses” in my preview column. Russell Henley, who fired 68-71-70-70 here last time in his first attempt, will now head into that column in 2015. He obviously likes the sight lines, crowds, greens and everything else as he opened this week with 64 and was just two shots behind McIlroy Sunday afternoon on the first tee. None of his performance numbers jump off the page this week so it’s fair, I believe, to add him to your “tough guy” lists. Anyone at that age that is NOT named McIlroy who battles like that all day, especially after a ball in the water on No. 15 Sunday, and beats three guys in a playoff is good in my book. His first win showed us he could get crazy low and crazier hot with the putter. His second win showed us he could gut it out. That’s a pretty solid resume. Gamers, we know he can win. Now, the question is can he perform at a more consistent level for salary games and weekly games. I liked what I saw today!
With this victory, Henley collects $1,080,000, 500 FedExCup Points and entry into the World Golf Championship Cadillac Championship at Doral next week.
Déjà vu All Over Again?
After winning 31 of 40 tournaments in 2013, the USA has now won the first 14 of 15 events of 2013-14. Harris English, Jimmy Walker (THREE), Webb Simpson, Ryan Moore, Dustin Johnson, Chris Kirk, Zach Johnson, Patrick Reed, Scott Stallings, Kevin Stadler, Bubba Watson and Russell Henley have collected the hardware this year for the stars and stripes. Jason Day is representing the rest of the world as the Australian won the WGC-Match Play last week.
Only 17 of the 38, 54-hole leaders went on to win last year in full-field, stroke play events. I’m always trying to figure out if this is a trend or not. In 2013-14 seven of 14 leaders have gone on to win. Rory McIlroy has now failed to convert two of five career leads as his one-shot lead on Sunday didn’t hold up.
The Champion Course lived up to its nickname on Sunday as only 17 of the 70 players broke par. Ryan Palmer was the only one of the four in the playoff who accomplished this.
How It Shook Out:
2007: Mark Wilson (-5); First win on TOUR; 12 players broke par
2008: Ernie Els (-6); 14 players broke par
2009: Y.E. Yang (-9); First win on TOUR; 26 players broke par
2010: Camilo Villegas (-13); 16 players broke par
2011: Rory Sabbatini (-9); 16 players broke par
2012: Rory McIlroy (-12); 25 players broke par
2013: Michael Thompson (-9); 17 players broke par
2014: Russell Henley (-8); 45 players broke bar
Since moving to PGA National in 2007, this is the second playoff event. Mark Wilson also won a four-banger in 2007.
Young Guns versus Prime Time versus Old Guys
Jimmy Walker (34) started the season out on the right foot for the Prime Time guys and was joined by Ryan Moore (30) in Malaysia and Zach Johnson (37) at Kapalua now Kevin Stadler (33), at WMPO and Bubba Watson, 35, joined them at Riviera. Walker has now added TWO more victories to the guys currently in their prime!
Scott Stallings (28), Patrick Reed (23), Chris Kirk (28), Webb Simpson (28), Dustin Johnson (29), Harris English (24), Jason Day (26) and now Russell Henley, 24, are the twenty-somethings on the board. With Henley’s victory, the Young Guns now have eight wins to the Prime Timers seven.
The Old Guys are playing like old guys as they have zero wins this season. Stuart Appleby, 42, began the day four shots behind and settled for a T8 finish.
What I learned from the finishers in the top 10 this week
Rory McIlroy: That’s going to leave a mark. McIlroy had converted his last three 54-hole leads but his closing round 74 left it to chance in a playoff today. His second shot on the 72nd hole gave him a chance to win the tournament outright with an eagle but we’ve yet to see that “Tiger-esque” moment from McIlroy yet; we’ve just seen to major wins by eight shots. Can’t have it all! He now falls to 0-2 in playoffs as he also fell at Quail Hollow in a three-man playoff when Rickie Fowler claimed his first title. That didn’t seem to slow him down! He was ranked No. 1 by me this week and he did everything but win. In his last three years here, he’s won, WD with a toothache and lost in a playoff. YOU WANT DRAMA? He’ll obviously be one of my favorites next week at Doral and this result won’t bother him, I believe, down the road.
Russell Knox: If McIlroy is the hare, Knox is the turtle. Nice and steady and nothing too flashy, the Scotsman has seen eight weekends in 10 events this season but only had two top 25s to show for his efforts. Knox used the Web.com season in 2013 to secure his card with his 20th place finish on the season-long money list. He popped on gamer’s radar last summer as he posted finishes of T13, MC, T17 and T16 in his final four events of the season. His ball-striking and steadiness hasn’t added up to flashy results but this career-best finish should push him in the right direction. I have no problem endorsing him for season-long games because of that steadiness off the tee and from the fairways.
Ryan Palmer: Where McIlroy had to make birdie on the final hole, Palmer just needed a par to win for the fourth time on TOUR. It wasn’t to be. Palmer also bogeyed the 70th holed so his 10-under was now eight-under and it was playoff time. Usually known for his tee ball and putting acumen, the Texan led the field in GIR this week, but that shouldn’t be surprising as he sits SIXTH in the all-around ranking this season. After MC in Las Vegas to start the season, he rattled off six straight weekends, including T8 at Sony and solo second at Humana, but he was T48 and T32 in his last two starts. In five previous starts at Honda, he was 3-for-5 with T26 as his best finish. With two seconds on the year, Palmer now has three top 10s in his last six. He was the only player with all four rounds in the 60s this week. He now has seven seconds on TOUR.
Billy Hurley III: After beginning his season with T9 at the Frys.com, any gamers that jumped on board were disappointed as Hurley III best finish in his next six events was T38. His T9 at Frys.com and his solo fifth this week give him two of his best three finishes on TOUR in his career. The best was T4 in 2012 at AT&T in July. I’ll be patient before jumping on this bandwagon, but Hurley III was hot this week. He was T9 in fairways, T10 in GIR, fourth in strokes gained-putting and led the field with only four bogeys. He racked up 54 pars. That’s steady but not an easy act to pull off weekly!
David Hearn: The last time the Canadian was in The Takeaway was after his playoff loss to Jordan Speith at last year’s John Deere Classic. He had a chance to change his life with a five-footer in the playoff but he missed and Spieth went on to win instead. We all know how that turned out. Anyhoo, Hearn cranked out 19 birdies, second best on the week and was first in strokes gained-putting and second in putts per GIR. He played the weekend in three-under and that was with TWO double bogeys! Heading into this week, he had made only five cuts from nine events and MC the last two years at The Honda Classic so he wasn’t on my watch list.
Will MacKenzie: The rebirth of his career for the 39-year old is continuing to steam down the tracks. In 10 events this season he’s posted T15 or better in seven of them including T6 this week. After a run of T13, T7 and T13, he stalled with T52 at Riviera. His course history there suggested this would happen. His course history at The Honda suggested he would rebound this week. He did. He adds T6 to T12 in 2010, T5 in 2009 and T22 in 2007. He has proven to be of excellent value in weekly and season-long games.
Sergio Garcia: One of the best ball-strikers in the world stood up and was counted again this week with T8 after an opening round 72. Garcia’s normal recipe was successful again as he was T6 in GIR and he did not make a double or worse. He played the final three days seven-under, including a Sunday co-leading 67. He’s right on schedule and continues to chalk up results worldwide.
David Lingmerth: In my research notes, I had the following people listed with cuts-made streaks: Ryan Palmer, six; Stuart Appleby five; David Lingmerth, Ben Crane, Brice Garnett, and J.B. Holmes with four. Of those six players, three hit the top eight and five made the cut again. Now, this isn’t the case every week but what I learned is that guys who are playing well will eventually bust through. He was trending in the right direction as well as in 2014 he was T47, T42 and T29 his last time out. Nice jump this week! Lingmerth hits the top 10 for the first time since last year’s Greenbrier.
Luke Donald: He was No. 1 on my “horses-for-courses” list this week due impart to the fact he didn’t make The Chalk as his best finish worldwide was only T31. Donald’s T8 adds to his T10 in 2010 and his solo second in 2008. See, some guys just love certain tracks and Donald has no problem putting these greens as he was third in strokes gained-putting and putts per GIR. His three doubles kept him from an even better payday but I’ll put him in the lineup here next year regardless of form.
Stuart Appleby: As noted above, he’s been playing some solid golf of late but four of those five starts were T35 or worse. He racked up a bunch of birdies and bogeys this week but if his putter gets working Appleby has proven he can still contend. He was fifth in strokes gained-putting and ninth in putts per GIR. It’s also his second top 10 in his last four starts at PGA National.
What happened to my pre-tournament favorites?
Rory McIlroy: P2, see above
Graeme McDowell: After two great weeks on the OAD train, I’m back to being craptacular thanks to Ian Poulter last week and GMAC this week. McDowell’s T46 was due to a three-over weekend that included a frozen putter. After a T7 at Pebble Beach and a quarterfinal defeat at the WGC-Match Play, GMAC could pull of a third straight top 10. His T46 is his worst finish in five starts here and the first time in four years he finished outside the top nine.
Charl Schwartzel: MC. Speaking of ice-cold putters, the South African posted 73-74 and was sent home early. After T14, T5 and T9 in his first three starts here this makes perfect sense. Oh, and his last stroke play event, NTO, he was fifth at Riviera. Go ahead, make sense of this. I DARE YOU.
Lee Westwood: Similar to McDowell, Westwood would have had a solid tournament if things would have been wrapped up on Friday night as he stood seven-under. His seven-over weekend pushed him to T46. He made no birdies on Saturday and dropped three shots and on Sunday he doubled No. 17 and bogeyed No. 18 to drop even farther down the board. His T20 at Riviera plus his three top 10s in the last four here suggested a better result. His play this weekend did not.
Tiger Woods: Here we go again. Is his game back or not back. Is his back hurt seriously or not seriously? After walking off No. 13 on Sunday, all of these questions will come back to the forefront. After his 65 on Saturday, hope was abounding for gamers who looked past his recent form and skint course history and took the chance. After his play on Sunday, it’s the exact reason I left him out this week. Play him on courses he dominates, especially if gamers have limited starts. He’s questionable for Doral where he’s been in the top 10 in 12 of 13 tries. I’m not going to start writing his obituary yet but this has reinforced my belief on when to play him even more.
Sergio Garcia: T8, see above.
Adam Scott: T12. After four rounds of par or better, gamers realize that his career is continuing to move in only one direction. Up. His 19 birdies, second most, prove again that week in and week out, he’s going to be a factor. Get this: he had FOUR doubles and was T12. There’s your proof.
Keegan Bradley: T12. After getting it to nine-under through four holes on Sunday, the wheels came off with five bogeys in his next seven holes. He’s getting closer. If offered a T12 before the week started, I think most, if not all, gamers would have gladly accepted that. He’s now finished T12, T4 and T12 in his last three at Honda. #permanentmarker. He’s good and will get better. Season-long gamers, he’s moving in the proper direction.
Rickie Fowler: His third place finish at the WGC-Match Play brought him into the fray this week and his last two appearances at Honda made him impossible to leave out. His T24 adds to his T13 last year and T7 in 2012. All four rounds were par or better so the flashy dresser has started to get his swing back in the right groove. Butch Harmon is already having a positive effect.
Henrik Stenson: Make it zero top 25s in his last four stroke play events with his MC this week. That’s enough for me. Get healthy, man.
Zach Johnson: T33. He was T17 heading into Sunday before a final round 73 set him back. He has TWO rounds over 72 this season. I’m not going anywhere.
Billy Horschel: He has MC in his last two stroke play events, including this one, and only has three rounds in the 60s of 12 played in full-field, stroke play events this year.
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