ATHENS, Ga. -- Russell Henley knew the odds were not in his favor, but he told anyone who would listen before last year’s Stadion Classic at UGA that he was playing in the Nationwide Tour event to win.
Only one amateur golfer had won an event since the satellite tour launched in 1990, but Henley followed through on his plan at his home course. Then a senior at Georgia, he shared the 54-hole lead with Troy Kelly and went on to beat Kelly by two strokes in front of a partisan gallery at the UGA Golf Course.
Now a professional rookie, Henley’s approach will remain the same when he attempts to defend his title in two weeks -- and he’ll be hoping for a similar outcome.
“I think I’ve changed a little bit as a person. As a player, I feel pretty similar,” said Henley, 23. “I think you’ve always got to play to win no matter what it is and what your chances are. You’ve got to play to win the thing, so I’m sure my approach will be the same and I hope I’ll have just as much fun.”
Henley flew across the country from California -- he finished tied for 42nd over the weekend at the TPC Stonebrae Championship -- and made it early Monday morning to Athens in order to participate in media day for the Stadion Classic at UGA. Joining him were Hudson Swafford, his former Georgia teammate and fellow Nationwide Tour rookie, and former Georgia all-American Richard Scott, who will compete in the event on a sponsor’s exemption if he does not qualify outright.
The year since Henley’s win has had its ups and downs. He graduated from Georgia with a degree in consumer economics during tournament week, and instead of turning pro immediately he went on to compete as an amateur in several premier events. He made the cut for the second straight year at the U.S. Open and tied for 42nd, then played for the victorious U.S. team in the Palmer Cup and also competed on the losing American side in the Walker Cup matches in Scotland.
Henley finally turned pro after the Walker Cup and placed 31st in his first event, the Soboba Golf Classic, in late September. He participated in PGA Tour Qualifying School at the end of the year, but did not advance far enough to earn PGA status this season, instead using his status as a 2011 event winner to play on the Nationwide Tour.
This season’s results have been fairly uneven, however. Henley made the cut in three of the six Nationwide Tour events in which he competed, with his best result a tie for 23rd at the Chile Classic. His $10,950 in winnings place him 88th on the Nationwide Tour money list this season.
“I think I’ve learned a lot about myself,” said Henley, who tied for low amateur honors at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links. “I haven’t really played as well as I wanted to and that’s been a little frustrating, but I’m just trying to learn. That’s the only thing you can do is just keep learning and hopefully it will come together.”
Despite the uneven results Henley believes his time at Georgia prepared him for the level of competition he now faces as a professional. He was one of the top players on Georgia’s 2011 NCAA runner-up team and ranked among the nation’s top college competitors for much of his time in Athens.
Now he’s trying to adjust his game to individual play rather than focusing on the college team-centric atmosphere in which he thrived.
“I think I was lucky to be at a school where we played against all the top teams and we played at a lot of great golf courses,” Henley said. “I think that’s what you do when you’re on tour -- you play all really good players and the competition’s awesome every week just like it was in college and you play all good courses. I’m still doing the same thing; I’m just doing it for me and not for a team.”