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updated: 9/13/2013 8:56 AM

Not a big name, but Henley's future looks bright

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  • After helping Barry Rozner survive Wednesday's Pro-Am event, Russell Henley tees off for the opening round of the BMW Championship Thursday.

       After helping Barry Rozner survive Wednesday's Pro-Am event, Russell Henley tees off for the opening round of the BMW Championship Thursday.
    Barry Rozner | Staff Photographer

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There were only a few dozen people left on the ninth hole Wednesday night when Russell Henley struck the final shot of the Pro-Am.

And there were only a few hundred lining the first hole when Henley hit the first shot of the BMW Championship at Conway Farms on Thursday morning.

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At 10:20 a.m., a sellout crowd of more than 25,000 was either camped out on the practice green watching Tiger Woods' final moments of preparation or scurrying to find room on the back nine to see Woods strike the rock.

There were the purple people searching for Luke Donald, the orange orchestrating for Steve Stricker and the lefties applauding every wacky shot concocted by Phil Mickelson.

Woods started the day on No. 10 and by then Henley was on No. 4, playing the front in relative quiet and virtual anonymity. I confess to having known little about Henley beyond his rookie status and season-opening win at the Sony in Hawaii in January, when he won a million bucks after finishing with a 63 on Sunday.

That's until I was invited to play with Henley on Wednesday in the Pro-Am that raised more than $1 million for the Evans Scholars Foundation.

Turns out the 24-year-old from the University of Georgia is as affable as they come and more than willing to share his knowledge with three amateurs who were more than willing to use the entire course, especially adjoining fairways.

What we needed was a groundskeeper -- or a lumberjack -- more than a Tour pro, but Henley and caddie Adam Hayes did all they could to help and showed us a great time while using the day to learn the course.

"I always try to enjoy these days," Henley said. "That's life, dude. It doesn't last forever and you only get one shot at this.

"If you can influence someone, just one person, in a positive way every day you're doing a heck of a job. I have looked back on some days I haven't had a good attitude and wasted some days.

"I'm trying not to do that because you never know when it's going to be your last. I like the Pro-Ams. You meet some great people. Not you, but often I meet great people."

It was that kind of day. The insults and laughs were plentiful and almost as random as my tee shots. I blame the Blackhawks. I have to blame someone, and they stalled my golf season with many weeks of playoffs just when I was getting hot.

Wednesday started in fine fashion as I slipped in the pouring rain heading down the stairs to the range, tearing a quad and -- worse -- hurting my pride.

I'd like to tell you it was the reason I hit my opening tee shot 150 yards and left into the junk, but that excuse would be as poor as my second shot, a 3-iron I deposited in the creek. It hurt to walk. It didn't hurt to swing.

"It hurt my eyes to watch you swing," Henley said. "And you were the best amateur in the group."

Like being the nicest smelling cow chip in the farm I hit into on No. 12.

Alas, I got it together and strung together several pars on the back, which was our front, and my shot of the day came on the par-3 fifth when I hit a lob wedge from 60 feet off a side hill below the hole to a foot, with Henley standing near the cup and daring me to get it close and save par.

It was a memorable day and the best part was simply getting to know a player in Henley who's going to be around for a long time. He's had three top 10s as a rookie and $1.97 million in earnings.

When I greeted him on the tee box for round one Thursday morning, Henley put his palms to the air and said, "Dude, this is my job. Can you not bother me at work?"

He was that relaxed minutes before his opening shot of the BMW Championship.

Unfortunately, his 5-over front removed the smile and even a 2-under back did not leave Henley feeling satisfied. He has hit a wall late in his first season.

"It's hard to just settle for being here in the (FedEx) Playoffs," Henley said. "I really beat myself up. I'm doing my best to figure out how to be consistent out here."

He is ranked 43rd in FedEx points, something he ought to be proud of considering Henley and Jordan Spieth (No. 10) are the only rookies to have reached the penultimate event of the season.

"A lot of that is just trying to figure out who I am. Once you figure that out, I think golf and everything else takes care of itself," Henley said. "It's been a little bit of a grind the last couple months. Physically, I feel great. I can't say the same about mentally.

"I'm hanging in there, trying to surround myself with people who are gonna help me be better. Hopefully, in the long run I'll learn from this."

As Brandt Snedeker fired an 8-under Thursday to take the first-round lead, followed closely by Zach Johnson (-7), Woods (-5), Stricker (-5) and several big names, the BMW is off to a compelling start. But Henley will need a big rally to move into the top 30 and reach the Tour Championship.

"Once I won to start the year, managing my expectations has been the toughest thing," Henley said. "Everyone out here desperately wants to play well and it can get in your own way. I'm trying to be easy on myself, and that's hard to do.

"This is fun and the greatest thing in the world. It's what I always wanted, but it's tough to remember after some holes. I try to remember. Some days it's easier than others."

Thursday was not an easy day for Henley, at only 24, to think of the great career and amazing life he has in front of him. That is understandable as competitive, professional athletes expect victory and despise defeat.

In golf, however, most players don't even win once a year. Learning to live with defeat is counterintuitive but entirely necessary.

Russell Henley will learn that -- and I will be watching.

brozner@dailyherald.com

•Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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