Russell Henley tees off. File photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo
HUMBLE, Texas -- Russell Henley carded 10 birdies on Sunday in the final round of the Houston Open, but said afterward that the two birdies he sank on the last two holes in Saturday's third round were likely the key to his three-shot victory over South Korea's Sung Kang.
Henley shot a sizzling 7-under-par 65 in the final round to finish at 20-under-par, rolling past Kang and capturing the title in Bayou City, with the round contested in sporadic rain on the Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston.
Tee times were moved up to early morning to beat the expected heavy thunderstorms that had been predicted for the Greater Houston area, but they held off long enough for Henley to take advantage of the softened course and punch his ticket to the Masters Tournament.
Henley's four-day total of 268 tied the 72-hole scoring mark that was established by Phil Mickelson in his win here in 2011. Henley credited his late surge Saturday, when he closed from six strokes back to only four heading into the final round, for giving him the confidence to craft his stunning round on Sunday.
"I knew it was going to be hard (today) and I was prepared for it to be close," Henley said. "I just tried to go into the mentality that I know I can do it, I know I can win if I play well, and I just tried to believe in it. And, yeah, I was just prepared for a very difficult round today, and two birdies yesterday were huge, you know."
Henley grabbed the lead with a 2-foot birdie putt on the par-5 13th after lagging his first putt from 98 feet from the extreme front of the green to the back. He then took the tournament by the throat with a 36-foot putt for birdie on the par-3 14th and 2-footer for another birdie on the par-5 15th that garnered him a three-shot lead with just three holes to play.
Henley then calmly canned a 6-foot putt for par on the par-3 16th; when Kang missed for birdie from inside Henley's putt it all but handed the tournament to the Georgia alum. Henley's birdie from 15 feet on the 17th was just window dressing and his bogey on the last was forgotten as soon as it hit the bottom of the cup.
Kang shot even par 72 for the final round and finished alone in second at 17 under thanks to a 17-foot putt for par on the 18th hole. Rickie Fowler and Luke List tied for third at 16 under while Daniel Berger was a solo fifth at 13 under.
The win was Henley's third on the PGA Tour and his first since the 2014 Honda Classic. His best finish this season had been a tie for ninth at the Valspar Championship on in mid-March and the win this week was his third Top-10 showing in the 2016-17 campaign. He'll be playing in his fourth Masters in five seasons as a professional golfer.
Henley's past 13 rounds at this golf course have been under par; in all, he is a collective 57 under in his rounds at the Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston.
"I feel like I just manage the course well," Henley said. "I know where to miss it and I feel comfortable. I feel like there's a lot of room for me to hit the ball coming into the greens. That's the best way I can describe it. It's one of the best manicured courses on Tour. It's so green and it's perfect in every spot. And the greens have always been just spectacular. That gives me confidence knowing the greens are really smooth."
Henley, playing in the final group with Kang and Fowler, surged into a tie for the lead with Kang with a birdie on the par-5 eighth hole, his fifth birdie of the round.
But a double bogey on the tough par-3 ninth hole, on which he found the bunker off the tee and needed three putts to finish the hole once on the putting surface, dropped Henley a stroke behind the Kang, who bogeyed the hole but regained the lead.
Henley promptly birdied the par-4 10th on a 14-foot putt, in essence turning the final eight holes into a one-on-one battle with Kang.
Kang, who led by three shots over Fowler and by four over Henley and Luke List after the third round, could never find an answer for the course on Sunday. His final round 72 included two birdies, two bogeys and a lot of head shaking.
"I still did OK -- I didn't play that well today, but I hung in there," Kang said. "And Russell played great today. The weather was not that good. I'm going to have a little bit less pressure for my season this year, so it was a good week. I played really solid the first few rounds and then it shifted for two rounds. I'll keep grinding out and working out and hopefully I can get a chance in the next time for myself."
Fowler, who was expected to lead the charge to catch Kang, fell out of contention with a double bogey and a bogey in his first four holes. By the time he regained his stride with three birdies on the back-nine, Henley had already run away with the win.
"It was nice that I got it turned around and started to make some good swings and made some birdies and fought back, got a good finish out of it," Fowler said. "Obviously, yeah, I would have like to have gotten off to a better start. Russell played awesome today. It was fun to watch."
Argentina's Angel Cabrera never made a run up the leaderboard but he had the shot of the tournament. On Sunday, Cabrera had a hole in one on the 226-yard ninth hole, his final hole of the day, and walked off the course at 4 under.
NOTES: Eight third-round leaders/co-leaders have gone on to win during the 2016-17 Season, most recently Adam Hadwin at the Valspar Championship. ... Since the Shell Houston Open moved to the Tournament Course in 2006, six third-round leaders/co-leaders have parlayed that position into a win: Phil Mickelson (2011), Anthony Kim (2010), Paul Casey (2009), Johnson Wagner (2008), Stuart Appleby (2006) and Jim Herman (2016). ... Seventeen players already qualified for next week's Masters were still in action on Sunday in the Shell Houston Open field: Daniel Berger, Angel Cabrera of Argentina, Kevin Chappell, Jason Dufner, Rickie Fowler, James Hahn, Charley Hoffman, Mackenzie Hughes, Phil Mickelson, Sean O'Hair, Jon Rahm of Spain, Justin Rose of England, Andy Sullivan of England, Hudson Swafford, Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela, Bernd Wiesberger of Austria and Chris Wood of England.