By ERIC SODERSTROM
Just when everyone started thinking Russell Henley was only a golfer, he became an uncle the next day.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool, I’m an uncle now,” said Henley, who until last week had split his high school years mostly between signing scorecards and being an all-state point guard.
He made his final basket for Stratford Academy in last Saturday’s 65-51 loss to Southland in the second round of the Georgia state playoffs.
So it was on Tuesday that Henley teed off for the first time at hometown Idle Hour Country Club in Macon, Ga., without actually holding court.
“I’m so used to getting done and saying, ‘Well, there’s next year (for basketball),’” said Henley, who turns 18 next month. “But there really isn’t a next year, and it really hasn’t hit me yet. It’s tough.”
But with loss comes new life, and such good news came Wednesday when Henley’s 29-year-old brother, Adam, welcomed son Carter to the world.
“I know I’m going to teach him a lot of golf,” said Henley. “And I want him to play football, because that’s what I would have played … if didn’t get into golf so early on.”
Golf helped get Henley into the University of Georgia, where next year he will play golf full-time for coach Chris Haack and the sixth-ranked Bulldogs. Henley, whose brother also went to Georgia, made official what most people close to him had figured all along: Athens or Bust.
“He’s just one of those guys who loves the ‘Dogs, so we did our best to secure him early,” Haack said. “Because we knew the longer he went the more people would become interested in him.”
Next year, Georgia’s roster will include seven in-staters.
Said Haack, “It’s just worked out that there’s been some very talented guys that wanted to be here.”
He figured he’s never had so many players that grew up Georgia fans on one team.
“But it certainly doesn’t hurt,” Haack said.
Henley said he tried to keep an open mind in evaluating schools, but knew it would eventually come down to his top two choices: Georgia and Georgia.
It helped that Haack was interested, though most coaches who knew about Henley were.
“He just kind of has that instinct for the game and can just hit shots,” said Haack. “He just has that tenacity on the golf course.”
But he’s played mostly local courses, which is one reason you may not have heard of him until now. Henley, a three-time individual state champion and two-time Georgia State Golf Association Junior Player of the Year, is also just a laid-back kid who never thought about rankings or doing anything different to gain exposure.
The kid from Macon was making it at home, so there was really no reason to leave.
“I’ve always just wanted to play in a tournament that, first, I thought I would like the course and second, I always liked going to tournaments and having someone there that I actually knew and could hang out with, because that just makes me a lot more relaxed,” said Henley, explaining his atypical route that bypassed the AJGA almost completely (he played just three events, with a best finish of T-4).
“And I know that if I went to like Utah in the middle of the summer that I probably wouldn’t know anybody so I just don’t think it would have been that fun of an experience for me,” he added.
Henley’s most notable showing on the national stage came at the 2005 U.S. Junior Amateur, where he lost to eventual champion Kevin Tway, 3 and 1, in the Round of 16.
A couple months later, he was spending his after-school hours in the Stratford Academy gymnasium working on his jump shot.
February to October, golf. October to February, and hopefully March, basketball. That’s the schedule Henley and his clubs had grown accustomed to.
“I’d only play golf about five to six times during the (basketball) season on the weekend with friends,” said Henley.
In a way, Henley seemed a bit like Bruce Lietzke, who built a reputation on the PGA Tour and now Champions Tour for throwing his clubs in the garage during the offseason and not touching them until the first round of the following year.
But Lietzke hated practicing. Henley – at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds – was just practicing something else.
“I’m going to see what’s it like to play year round, and I’m sure it’s going to make a difference,” said Henley, who will room with Georgia’s other incoming freshmen, Harris English and Lowery Thomas. “It’ll be fun to see how good I can get.”
Pretty good, Haack thinks.
“I think his best golf is still very, very far ahead of him as he learns more and more about the game and how to play,” he said. “He’s just going to be better and better.”
Haack compared Henley’s situation to former Bulldog and All-American Richard Scott, a three-time Canadian Amateur champion who has since turned professional.
Growing up in Canada, Scott was forced to put away his clubs for as long as winter decided.
“So by the time golf rolled around in the spring, he was excited to get going again and it was kind of different for him, all of a sudden to play year round,” said Haack, who said it also helped Scott deal with slowing down over Georgia’s winter break. “So it was neat to kind of see him develop.”
Haack also mentioned Ryan Hybl, Georgia’s assistant coach and Golfweek’s 27th-ranked amateur, who played high school football.
“They’re more the rarity these days, because most of these kids these days select golf, and golf is it and it’s all they do,” said Haack. “It’s kind of refreshing to get a guy like this who does enjoy team sports.”
At Georgia, especially.
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Eric Soderstrom is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.