PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Georgia’s Russell Henley, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods were the stories Sunday in the Honda Classic, each for entirely different reasons.
Henley rallied for victory at PGA National in a four-man sudden-death playoff with a birdie to earn his coveted invitation to next month’s Masters Tournament.
McIlroy self-destructed on the course, and Woods walked off it.
Henley, from Macon, Ga., hadn’t qualified for next month’s Masters after making his debut at Augusta National Golf Club last year.
“I just can’t imagine not playing again. I just feel like that would hurt me really bad,” said Henley, who was reminded that he wasn’t in the field when he saw TV ads for the tournament or fans wearing Masters logo hats.
“It’s going to be cool to go back,” said Henley, whose 25th birthday will fall on the third round of the Masters.
McIlroy, the world’s No. 8 player who was going for a wire-to-wire victory, was part of the playoff, but he couldn’t salvage a victory after a tough day in regulation. He shot 3-over-par 38 on the back nine to finish with 4-over 74, while Henley had 72.
Scotland’s Russell Knox (71) and Texan Ryan Palmer (69) were also in the playoff, which ended on the first playoff hole – the par-5 18th – when Henley made a two-putt birdie. They finished at 8-under 272.
Hours before the playoff, Woods, the world’s No. 1-ranked player, withdrew with an ailing lower back. It cast doubt that he would play this week at Doral, where he is the defending champion.
In addition to his Masters invite, the victory earned Henley a spot at Doral for the Cadillac Championship, a World Golf Championship event.
“I think he’s got a great future,” Jack Nicklaus said of Henley while being interviewed during the NBC broadcast.
Henley, a former University of Georgia player who won the Sony Open in early 2013, completed a revival of sorts after a disappointing second half of 2013 and start of 2014. He had missed three of the past four cuts before this week, and tied for 52nd in the other start.
“This doesn’t feel real,” Henley said. “It wasn’t what I expected at the start of the week.”
He was an unlikely winner after the way events unfolded on the front nine Sunday. Two shots behind McIlroy at the start of the round, Henley trailed him by four shots after six
holes, but hung in there to outlast the strong field by going back to basics with his swing.
McIlroy had been 4-0 worldwide while holding a 54-hole lead, but he had five bogeys and a double bogey Sunday and “couldn’t get the job done,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s very disappointing,” he said. “Look, it was a perfect opportunity to win. No one was really coming at me.”
Woods, who felt back spasms while warming up Sunday, was 5-over for his round through 13 holes when he called it a day and headed to his nearby home in Jupiter.
At the time, he was tied for 46th after opening with rounds of 71-69-65. It continues an alarming trend for Woods: In three starts
this season, he’s yet to crack the top 40, which doesn’t bode well with the Masters just more than a month away.