‘I’ve just choked:’ Tour winner’s candid admission about past struggles
There are certain words that Tour pros avoid uttering at all costs.
Yips and shanks are high on the list. So, too, is choke.
You wouldn’t have known it, though, if you listened to Russell Henley speaking Sunday night after winning his fourth PGA Tour title.
Coming into the final round at the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba, Henley was just one-for-six in converting 54-hole leads on the PGA Tour. His last win was more than five years ago and his last and only previous win when leading after three rounds came at the 2013 Sony Open.
In the past three seasons alone Henley has held the 54-hole lead four times, including at the 2021 U.S. Open, but come away with no wins.
“I’ve just choked, you know?” Henley said after his final-round 70 in Mexico gave him a comfortable four-shot win. “The nerves have gotten to me, and I’ve made bad mistakes, bad mental mistakes and just haven’t gotten it done on Sunday.”
After finally coming through on a Sunday, Henley was asked if he thought the win “was a bit of a monkey-off-your-back scenario.”
“I do,” Henley said. “To come out and kind of do everything pretty well today tee to green and keep it pretty clean and just play steady was what was nice. I don’t think I would have done it unless I had kind of failed so many times.”
It’s fitting Henley’s 70 in the final round was good enough for the win. He’s been consistently ranked in the top 20 on the PGA Tour in first-round scoring average the past three seasons, but dipped into the 40s in final-round scoring average. That may not sound too problematic, but when you remove the 63 he shot to win the 2013 Sony Open, his scoring average in his blown leads is 70.4.
Henley simply hasn’t been playing his best when he needed to. But on Sunday, holding the largest 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour in more than a year — a six-shot margin — Henley didn’t need his best stuff.
There was one troubling moment. On the 5th hole, Henley’s second shot on the par-5 found the penalty area, perhaps due to a mud ball.
“I tried to aim out to the right to give myself some room, because typically when the mud’s on the right side of the ball, it goes left,” Henley said of his approach. “I didn’t aim far enough to the right, maybe I didn’t put a great swing on it, it’s tough to know, but the ball just went left the whole way. And I don’t really hit a shot like that too often, or I haven’t been lately, so it was frustrating.
“I feel like I maybe should have played a little more conservative than I did. I thought I made the right decision at the time.”
He made his first bogey of the entire week when he couldn’t get up and down after his drop. His lead was down to just three strokes after Scottie Scheffler posted 18 under.
“After that, my caddie, Andy [Sanders], just said, ‘Shake it off, let’s just keep doing what we’re doing,”‘ because the first four holes and then the tee shot on 5 I hit a fairway, a green and I gave myself a birdie putt and was playing well,” Henley said. “So he said, ‘Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing,’ and I said OK, going to keep fighting, keep trying to hit fairways and greens and it was nice to come back with a birdie on 6.”
Not only did Henley birdie 6, but also 7 and 8 to restore his six-stroke lead. He hit into trouble on 16, but with a five-stroke lead and just three holes to play, the long bunker shot seemed much less stressful. A bogey ended up being the difference between breaking the tournament scoring record and tying it, but the important part for Henley was he got the job done.
“Walking up 18 I kind of felt like I wanted to cry a little bit,” Henley said. “It was almost like just a little bit of emotion, just so much happiness looking back at the times where I kind of choked. I remember at Greensboro a couple years ago, just should have easily won the tournament, was just playing great and didn’t get it done. It was such a tough feeling because I put in a lot of work like we all do and just, you know, choked.”
There’s that word again!
Kudos to Henley for the win — and his honesty.