US Open: Russell Henley's performance at Torrey Pines proves he's not your average underdog

In a sport where fans tend to prefer pedigree over underdogs, Henley is the kind of player the populace generally wishes would “do the right thing” and leave the weekend stage to the big boys
US Open: Russell Henley's performance at Torrey Pines proves he's not your average underdog

Russell Henley plays his shot from the 17th tee during the first round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Thursday, June 17, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. Picture: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA – Russell Henley is the kind of rank-and-file Yank everyone tends to dismiss when they see his name pop up periodically on a major championship leaderboard – a Ricky Barnes for a new generation, if you will.

In a sport where fans tend to prefer pedigree over underdogs, Henley is the kind of player the populace generally wishes would “do the right thing” and leave the weekend stage to the big boys.

But Henley isn’t your average underdog. He’s the kind of grinder whose style might provide the staying power to challenge the heavyweights lined up behind him in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

“Yeah, I feel good about my game,” Henley said. “I've never been in this position before in a major. Just feel like I'm going to learn something no matter what happens.” 

Henley – a three-time PGA Tour winner who won his debut in Hawaii as a member back in 2013 and added a Honda and Houston title in 2014 and ’17 respectively – shot a quality U.S. 

Open-like 70 on Friday to stake himself to a share of the 36-hole lead with 48-year-old Richard Bland. Henley played classic fairways and greens – missing only four fairways and five greens – in a nearly flawless effort until he three-putt the last hole.

His name has made flash appearances in previous U.S. Opens – when he was low amateur at Pebble Beach in 2010 and again as an amateur in 2011 when he was on the weekend leaderboard at Congressional. 

Henley tied for 11th at the Masters in 2017 and 12th at the PGA Championship in 2015.

“I feel like I've learned who I am as a player and what works for me,” Henley said. “That's kind of what I've learned over the last year. Anywhere from how I practice and what I think and what works for me in the gym, you know, all of the above," he said. 

So much goes into it behind the scenes, and just being comfortable with who I am as a player and not trying to be somebody else. 

The final pairing will be chasing a stellar cast of major winners and wannabes assembling near the top of the board. 

Former Open champion Louis Oosthuizen sits third at 4-under with 2021 U.S. Open runner-up Matthew Wolff. Two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson and world No. 2 Jon Rahm are next at 3-under while Xander Schauffele is tied for seventh at 2-under with Kevin Streelman and Mackenzie Hughes.

Lurking a little further down the board at even par is defending champion Bryson DeChambeau, four-time major winner Brooks Koepka and PGA champions Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa.

“Didn't put it in the fairway, so you can't really do anything,” said Koepka, who got to 4-under early before slipping. “You can't hit anywhere near the pins. It's a U.S. Open golf course. If you're not going to hit the fairway, you're going to struggle. But I hung in there and wasn't too bad, I guess.” 

Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Francesco Molinari headline a group a 1-over and still very much in striking range on a South Course expected to get nastier as the weekend wears on.

“Birdieing two of the last four holes definitely makes me feel better about the round and gives me a nice bit of momentum going into (Saturday),” McIlroy said. 

“Even though Richard Bland's up there at 5-under, 1-over is right in it. So, yeah, in for the weekend and still feel like I've got a really good chance.” 

Shane Lowry hit only four fairways Friday afternoon, dropping four strokes in his first six holes, and had to fight back along the cut line to make the weekend on the number with a Friday 74 that left him 4-over and tied for 58th. He went immediately from signing his card to the driving range to try to work things out before he plays early Saturday.

Oosthuizen started the second round with a share of the lead but gave up a couple of strokes before birdies at 14 and 18 got him back to where he started the day at 4-under par. A runner-up in the PGA Championship last month, the former Open champ knows better than most what he needs to do this weekend to avoid a sixth career major silver medal.

“Try and go one better,” Oosthuizen said. “No, just keep patience and calm and see if you can get yourself within striking range with nine holes to go on Sunday and then take it from there.” 

Watson made a big run with five birdies in his final six holes to shoot 67 and climb to 3-under and into a share of fourth place heading into the weekend. He won the Farmers Insurance Open in 2011 by a stroke over Phil Mickelson.

“Whatever position I'm in, I made the cut, so that's a bonus for me,” said Watson, who missed the cut in eight of his prior 14 U.S. Opens and has only one top-10 in a major since his second victory at Augusta in 2014. 

“A golf course that I've been successful around a few times, top ten a few times, so looking forward to the challenge kind of. Should be fun.” 

Phil Mickelson scrambled to a 2-under 69 on Friday, making a birdie on his last hole to get to 2-over and tied for 31st to keep alive his quest to complete the career slam in his hometown.

“He made the putts he needed to to stay in,” said Schauffele, another San Diegan who played the first two days with his hometown icon. 

“He could have easily let it slide away with a few. Anything inside 10 feet, he was pretty automatic on the back and a lot of really good chips. He did what he was supposed to do at a U.S. Open, which is grind it out on a hard day.” 

“It's going to get tougher and tougher pins and trying to be patient and pick my spots,” said Mickelson. 

“I'm looking forward to the weekend. Feel like I'm playing good enough to make a run at it. Hopefully, I'll put it together (Saturday) and do that.”

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