PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Georgia native Russell Henley has his work cut out for him if he expects to win the Honda Classic today and punch a ticket to April’s Masters Tournament. It’s a challenge the former University of Georgia golfer welcomes.
At 110th in the world ranking, the Macon, Ga., resident’s best shot at making the field at Augusta National Golf Club for a second consecutive year is a win today at PGA National.
To get that automatic invitation that goes to PGA Tour winners, Henley, who shot 2-under-par 68 in Saturday’s third round, will have to chase down leader Rory McIlroy, a two-time major champion who is trying to go wire-to-wire.
“I live for it,” said Henley, who is in second place, two shots behind McIlroy after a round that featured an eagle on the par-4 14th hole, where he holed out a 150-yard second shot.
Henley opened with 64-68.
“I think this is one of those things where it doesn’t get much better,” Henley said. “I’m in the final group with a great player. It will be a blast. Hopefully I can play well and challenge him. I’m really excited.”
In addition to Henley, McIlroy is being pursued by Russell Knox (three back after 68) and Jhonattan Vegas (four back after 66). Four players are five back.
McIlroy, who won this tournament two years ago, has become a noted frontrunner. He is 3-0 on the PGA Tour with a 54-hole lead since blowing the 2011 Masters Tournament.
“I learned a lot that day,” said McIlroy, who closed with 80 after opening rounds of 65-69-70. ”I learned exactly how not to protect a 54-hole lead. I went out there being very protective, very cautious.
“So it was a huge learning day in my career, and that’s the reason that every 54-hole lead that I’ve had since I’ve been able to close the deal,” he said. “Hopefully I can keep that run going tomorrow.”
On Saturday, McIlroy added 69 to his opening rounds of 63-66. He’s at 12-under 198 and in control of his game. A victory would be his seventh on the PGA Tour, but first since the 2012 BMW Championship.
Henley and McIlroy, who have never met, go off in the final group at 1:40 p.m. today.
“Russell, I don’t really know much about,” McIlroy said. “I know he had a very impressive win at the start of last season at Sony. But apart from that I don’t really know much about him, so it will be a new experience for both of us tomorrow.”
Henley’s victory in the Sony Open in 2013 – which came in his first PGA Tour start – earned him his first trip to the Masters, where he shot 72-81 and missed the cut.
Henley said “it’s a long way off to even be talking about” the Masters, but that doesn’t mean it’s not on his mind.
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about the Masters,” he said. “I went to the Masters growing up as a kid almost every year on Saturday or Sunday. So not a day goes by I don’t think about that, and that probably gets in my way more than it helps.”