Russell Henley set the target in the Sony Open by making a 30-foot eagle putt to cap off a big finish, and nobody could catch him.
Nine years after Henley began his rookie season on the PGA Tour by winning the Sony Open, he played his final six holes in 6-under and posted a 7-under 63 for a three-shot lead over Haotong Li of China. Only two other players were within five shots of the lead.
So much of the morning was up for grabs after 18-hole leader Kevin Na began to fade, with as many as five players having at least a share of the lead.
Henley holed a greenside bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 18th hole, only to miss the green long and into a back bunker for bogey on the tough first hole. And then he couldn’t miss. He birdied both par 3s on the front nine from inside 10 feet, made a pair of 12-foot birdie putts and finished with his eagle.
“Nice to finish like that,” Henley said. “I don’t remember the last time I had two eagles in the same round, but it’s definitely exciting.”
That put him at 15-under 125 in another week of low scoring with very little wind at Waialae. And it was a daunting mark for those trying to stay in range.
“The last time I looked before I started it was at 11-under, so I was like, ‘That’s doable’.” said Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama. “But then halfway through I realised it was 15. Yeah, that’s tough when you’re that far back.”
Matsuyama had a 65 and was in the large group at 9-under 131 that included Keita Nakajima, the No. 1 amateur in the world who had a 64, and Brandt Snedeker (65).
“It’s hard not to press,” said Snedeker, who was 11 shots behind when he teed off. “But you realise it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
The cut was at 5-under 135, tying the Sony Open record set in 1998. Among those who missed by one was Rory Sabbatini, the Slovakian silver medallist at the Olympics, who missed a six-foot birdie putt on his last hole.
Matt Kuchar, who has been in Hawaii since four days before Christmas and sounds like he is in no hurry to leave, had a 65 and was four shots back. Michael Thompson played in the afternoon and posted a 67 to get within five shot at 10-under 130.
Waialae is where it all started for Henley. He began his rookie season in 2013 at the Sony Open by setting a 36-hole record at the time at 126 and outlasting Scott Langley in a weekend duel to win. Henley previously had won on the Nationwide Tour when he was still at Georgia.
Easy game, right?
“Didn’t take me very long to realize it’s really hard,” Henley said, who has three career victories as he starts his 10th year on tour. “Had a lot of up-and-downs my first year, second year, I mean, every year. After this first one, I remember thinking it might be easier than I thought.” He laughed before adding, “But it’s not.”
It felt easy at times on another gorgeous day along the Pacific, with minimal wind and an abundance of tropical warmth, and pure greens. The flat stick can be his best club in the bag, and Henley was just as deft with the 6-foot putts as some of his birdies.
Li has had a few big moments in his career, most notably at Harding Park in 2020 when he became the first player from China to hold the lead after any round in a major. He was two ahead in that PGA Championship until fading on the weekend.
He also was at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne at the end of 2019, though that didn’t go so well, starting in the practice round when his fill-in caddie got lost and decided to head into the clubhouse for coffee as Li played on out of another player’s bag. He lost both his matches.
Ditching contact lenses for designer glasses, he was steady in his round of 65, leaving him in contention for the weekend while playing on a sponsor exemption.
Na opened with a 61 and was 10 shots worst the next day. He didn’t make a birdie until his ninth hole and kept burning the edges on putts. On Thursday, some of those putts he narrowly missed were for birdie in his bid for a sub-60 round. On Friday, they were for par, and it sent him from a one-shot lead after the opening round to seven shots behind Henley.
Jim Furyk, now 51 who and a Sony Open winner in 1996, also had a 10-shot differential. He opened with a 62 and didn’t make a birdie until his final hole for a 72.