Rozner: Henley rediscovers magic with 61 at John Deere

  • Russell Henley hits off the 18th tee during the final round of the John Deere Classic golf tournament, Sunday, July 14, 2019, at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill.

    Russell Henley hits off the 18th tee during the final round of the John Deere Classic golf tournament, Sunday, July 14, 2019, at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill.

Updated 7/14/2019 6:25 PM

SILVIS, Ill. -- Russell Henley doesn't pretend to understand it.

He was No. 200 in the Official World Golf Rankings entering this week, the highest since he graduated from the Tour in 2013, when he won right out of the box in Hawaii early that season.


After winning his third career PGA Tour event in 2017, Henley ended the year at No. 46, but he hasn't done much since.

Why? The easy answer is, it's golf.

The best players in the world don't have an answer for why it can run so far off the rails, but when it does it's horribly difficult to find the tracks again.

And then Sunday happens.

The 30-year-old Henley fired a blazing 10-under 61 in the 105-degree heat index, the best final round in the 49-year history of the John Deere Classic.

And when he made a 9-foot birdie putt on 18 at 2:25 p.m., he walked off the course leading the tournament at 19-under.

It didn't figure to hold up -- and it didn't as Dylan Frittelli won at 21-under 2½ hours later -- but a solo second gave Henley new life in his bid to make the FedEx Cup playoffs, moving from No. 165 to 83rd place.

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Top 125 reach the first round, and Top 70 make it to the BMW Championship at Medinah a month from now.

That matters in that it brings back great memories for Henley, who was my partner in the 2013 BMW Pro-Am at Conway Farms, an event that set Henley on the path to, um … well, it set him on a path.

"Memories? I remember it, that's for sure," Henley said, all malice aforethought. "I don't think our group was very good."

Has a ring of truth to it.

In any case, Henley looked Sunday like the player who was once Top 40 in the world and trending higher, though he found himself a bit lost the last couple of years for reasons he can't really explain.

How about the fact that he got married a few years ago? Or had a baby two years ago? And now they've added another to the family, only 4 weeks old?


That's more than enough for anyone to be distracted at work, but golf takes extraordinary concentration and the desire to work hard for many hours a day.

To be great at this game means putting everything else in life second, something a lot of young dads on Tour are reluctant to do.

It's been apparent this year on the greens, where Henley is usually one of the best on Tour. He came into the JDC only 177th in strokes-gained putting, but this week he was No. 1 in the field with the flat stick.

"I just haven't felt comfortable," Henley said Sunday postgame. "Maybe I haven't worked at it as hard. Maybe I was stuck with a little bit of fear of missing, not really confident or believing in what I was doing.

"Just a weird game. You see a lot of guys go through ups and downs and it'll beat you up. Just have to keep working and believing.

"I've been practicing a lot and my mind was just a little bit quieter today."

Henley could have easily won the tournament if not for a pair of doubles Saturday and a 1-over 72 when the field was going very low.

"Yesterday, I was just kind of all over the place mentally and physically," Henley said. "Went to the range and worked last night and came out today feeling a little bit sharper.

"It's so hard to compete. Everyone is so good out here. You have to keep making birdies and keep making birdies, and when you make bogeys or doubles, you just have to keep fighting."

Then came the admission.

"If you get down on yourself like I've done a lot in my career, it never ends well," Henley said. "A big key out here is perseverance.

"It's good to know now that I'm not as far off as it's felt at times this year."

After a win, a third and five Top 10s in 2017, and three Top 10s last year, Henley entered Sunday without a single Top 15 in 2019.

And then he flirted with 59.

On the par-3 16th, Henley rolled a 64-foot birdie putt within an inch, and on the par-5 17th he burned the edge again and settled for par, before draining his final birdie chance on 18.

That close to a 59.

"It's hard to make every putt," Henley said with a smile. "I made a lot today."

Henley's got a lot to smile about off the course these days. On Sunday, golf finally made him happy again.

It's a start.

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