Published January 12, 2013
HONOLULU – Russell Henley still remembers the celebration, even though the party had been in the works for more than a month. His family was with him when he finished the Web.com Tour season at No. 3 on the money list to earn a spot in the big leagues.
"It was just kind of like, 'Wow! I just got my PGA Tour card.' You hope eventually one day you'll make it out here," Henley said Friday.
He showed up at the Sony Open for his rookie debut without any expectations except to play the same way he did on the Web.com Tour, where he won three times in two years, one of them while still in school at Georgia. His goal was to use this year to learn and improve.
And after two days?
Henley opened with a 7-under 63, one shot behind fellow rookie and good friend Scott Langley. He followed that Friday with seven birdies, no bogeys and another 63. That not only gave him a two-shot lead over Langley and Scott Piercy, it gave Henley the 36-hole scoring record at the Sony Open with a 14-under 126.
Not bad for his second day on the job.
The last rookie to win his PGA Tour debut was Garrett Willis at the Tucson Open in 2001, played that year opposite the winners-only Mercedes Championships at Kapalua. The Sony Open is far different — the first full-field of the PGA Tour season, which included five Ryder Cup players from Medinah.
The tournament is only at the halfway point, but the rookies are taking over, even if most of the players don't know who they are.
"It's Russell something and Langley? I think Russell won when he was in college, right?" Piercy said. "Hey, they're playing well. I think I played in five final groups as a rookie and didn't come through. There's a learning curve. But maybe their curve is quicker than mine."
The first tournament can be an awkward time for the rookies. They don't know a lot of the older players. Henley, for example, went into the dining room earlier this week and saw an older player sitting by himself. He didn't join him because he simply didn't know his habits — maybe he preferred eating by himself. This is not a time to make introductions, rather to sit back and soak it all in.
On the golf course, it's a different story.
It helped that Henley and Langley played in the same group for the first two days. There's a comfort level, and it showed. They became fast friends after sharing low amateur honors at Pebble Beach in the 2010 U.S. Open, and then sitting next to each other on the long flight to Royal Portrush for the Palmer Cup.
Langley opened with a 62 and followed that with a 66, the kind of score that usually keeps someone in the lead. This time, he was two shots behind, and he's lucky it wasn't more. Henley kept making birdies, and Langley was four shots back at one point until he made birdies on his last three holes.
"It's never easy to back up a really good round, I kind of got off to a little slower start," Langley said. "But it was certainly nice to finish the way I did and kind of get back in it with Russ. He played so well, and I was just trying to keep pace as much as I can. To finish that way was really good."
Piercy played in the afternoon and made eagle on the 18th hole at the turn as he tried to catch up to Henley, only to get slowed on his back nine. He had to settle for a 64 and will join the kids in the final group Saturday.
Matt Kuchar made eagle on his last hole for a 63 and was another shot behind at 11-under 129. Chris Kirk had the low round Friday at 62 and was in the group at 130 that included Tim Clark (66) and Charles Howell III (64).
That the scores were low — six players had a 63 or better Friday — was no surprise. Oahu hasn't received much rain over the last several months, and in tropical sunshine, the fairways were running fast and the greens were pure. And for those coming over from a windy week on Maui, it truly felt like paradise.
"Coming from last week, it feels really easy out there," Kuchar said. "This course, as simple as it seems, it's one of the tougher courses on tour. If you're not playing well, you're going to make some bogeys. ... I understand the wind is supposed to really die down over the weekend, so I certainly expect low scoring. The course is in great shape, greens are beautiful, so there's going to be a lot more birdies and foot has definitely got to be down on the pedal."
Dustin Johnson won't get a chance to match Ernie Els as the only players to sweep the two Hawaii events. Johnson, who won last week at Kapalua, withdrew after playing nine holes because of the flu.
"I feel like I'm coming down with whatever my caddie's got," said Johnson, who was 3 over at the turn. "Just not feeling well. Stomach hurts, headache, tired."
Pat Perez, equipped with a new attitude, had a 63 and was five shots behind.
Perez has decided to abandon his Twitter account because of all the comments he reads, instead promoting his Facebook account. His goal is to have fun on Facebook by poking fun at adages and clichés.
"For example, when people say they're on cloud nine. What's cloud nine? There is no such thing," Perez said.
Try telling that to Henley or Langley.