"Oh my, Henley is 4-under!" was the standard refrain. "He's an amateur."
Russell Henley is technically an amateur. But to think he doesn't belong in the company he's keeping at Congressional Country Club this week because he's not eligible for a paycheck is naive.
Henley is ready for the big time. The University of Georgia star already has more victories in professional events than wunderkind Rickie Fowler. That might explain why he's still in the U.S. Open and Fowler is already home plotting his next music video.
Henley keeps feeding off the massive Congressional crowds the same way he basked in the energy at Pebble Beach a year ago.
"I feel very confident in front of more people," Henley said. "I think it's because I look at it as a positive and not a negative. I love it. The more people the better for me."
About the only 22-year-old having more fun than Henley in this U.S. Open is runaway leader Rory McIlroy. And for a little while Saturday, Henley was putting up as good a chase of the Northern Irishman as anyone else in the major championship field.
Henley went out in 4-under on the front nine, jumping into a tie for third place just one shot out of second. His father, Chapen, was seen taking pictures of the leaderboard. He could be forgiven the infraction on cell cameras on the course.
"Go Dawgs!" barks followed him down the fairways.
"He embraces it," said Georgia coach Chris Haack, who showed up just in time to catch up with Henley at the turn. "It relaxes him. It reminds him that golf is supposed to be fun and distracts him from thinking about the golf."
Henley seemed to be cruising along a lot like McIlroy at the midpoint. But he sensed it was a mirage.
"I saw I was on the leaderboard and figured I was top 10 or something," he said. "But it was early and the leaders hadn't really gotten started and played the birdie holes like I had. I figured I had to get a lot lower to catch them."
And for the first time all week, Henley got a little tense. He started hitting the ball above the holes, leaving himself tough pars. He chipped long on 10 and made bogey. Putted short on 11 and made bogey. Missed greens on 14 and 15 and made bogeys.
He still engaged with the fans, tossing balls into the crowd as he walked off the 18th hole even par for the day and the tournament. But he was anxious to get to the range and work on his flaws.
"I feel good about my swing but something's just a little bit off," he said.
It was yet another sign of Henley's maturity that he didn't leave the course satisfied. Working alone on the range right beside him was Lee Westwood, the No. 2 golfer in the world sitting second at the time on the leaderboard.
This was exactly where Henley belonged. He won the Nationwide event on Georgia's home course in April, and he's a pro in everything but status.
"That was only on the Nationwide Tour and this is the U.S. Open," he said. "I feel like one day, hopefully, I'll be looked at as like one of the guys like Westwood here."
While he's not playing for cash, Henley has big things at stake today. He's one shot behind Patrick Cantlay in the race to claim a second consecutive low amateur medal, but Henley has bigger goals in minds.
Earlier Saturday he texted congratulations to Bulldogs teammate Bryden Macpherson for winning the British Amateur.
"It looks like you're going to the Masters," Henley's text read.
Macpherson wouldn't mind some company. Henley could join him in Augusta with a top-eight finish here. He's only a few shots out of that position.
"Obviously those are the things I want," he said. "Everybody wants to get in the top eight and get into more majors. But those are things I try not to think about. It does cross my mind but I try to push that away and take it one shot at a time."
Spoken like a true professional.