A year after University of Georgia alumni Bubba Watson slipped on the green jacket for the second time in three years, it’s another UGA alum, Russell Henley, who is near the top of the Masters leaderboard after Thursday’s opening round.
Henley carded a 4-under par 68 during ideal morning scoring conditions.
“For some reason today on first tee, I wasn’t quite as nervy as the last two years, and I just had a ball,” Henley said after Thursday’s round. “Obviously, it’s fun to shoot under par at Augusta, and I’m just very thankful I could finally shoot one in the 60s.”
His blond hair flopping beneath his white Nike visor, Henley credited his new mindset with his success. He has never finished better than tied for 31st at the Masters.
“Whenever I start taking things too seriously and putting a lot of pressure on myself, trying to be structured, like you feel like you get on Tour and you’re supposed to have the workout coach and the mental guy and the swing coach, I become a very average player,” said the 25-year-old Henley. “And when I just show up like I got invited at the last minute, just to have fun, I’m a lot more fun to be around and I play better.”
Over the next several days, the pressure will build. Henley knows his mental preparation, or perhaps lack thereof, will be key to his success.
“I know I want to. I know I can. I think this course is going to get harder and harder, and the pressure gets more and more. I know I can do it, and I think it’s going to be more mental with me,” Henley said. “Just believing in myself and enjoying it.”
Either way, Henley, much like Watson, revels in the local support.
“You hear a lot of ‘Go Dawgs!’ I hear a lot of ‘Macon, Georgia.’ But it’s a blast and it’s nice to get some attention.”
Henley’s 26th birthday is Sunday. If he’s still in it, he might get some more of that Watson-like attention if he can harness a Watson-like mindset.
“(Watson’s) definitely somebody to model your game after,” Henley said, “because his perspective, it seems like he’s very loose and very happy, no matter what happens.”
Loose and relaxed. No easy task on the weekend at Augusta National.
Vince Johnson is covering his seventh Masters tournament. You can follow his coverage on Twitter @vincejohnson.