WEDDINGTON, N.C. -- After going 42 straight holes without making a bogey, Russell Henley picked the perfect time to make one -- and it led to his first professional victory at the Chiquita Classic on the Web.com Tour. Last year at the Stadion Classic, Henley became just the second amateur to triumph on the Web.com Tour, winning by two strokes at the University of Georgia Golf Course in Athens.
After taking a one-stroke lead over two other hard-charging young guns, Morgan Hoffmann and Patrick Cantlay, with a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-5 17th hole, the 23-year-old Georgia alum appeared to be in the driver’s seat. However, Henley found the fairway bunker with his drive on No. 18 and then, after Hoffmann had finished at 22-under 266, he hit his approach shot with an 8-iron into the water.
After eventually reaching the green in four strokes, it appeared as if Henley had blown his chance. But after watching Cantlay, also at 22 under, miss his 25-foot birdie bid to win, Henley stepped up and drained a clutch 20-footer for a five that forced a three-way playoff.
“I had a tough lie in the bunker and hit one of the worst shots of the week but I hung tough. On the putt, I just tried to let my feel take over and not be too precise with it. I just wanted to put a free stroke on it,” said Henley. “It’s one of those putts that you try to practice but you can’t ever really emulate it. I didn’t have much to lose at that point and I put a pretty good stroke on one.”
In the overtime session, the three players returned to the 18th tee and Cantlay drove into the same fairway bunker that troubled Henley in regulation. With the ball below his feet, the UCLA product could only advance his second shot 50 yards short of the green.
Hoffmann then dumped his second into the water with an 8-iron and the costly miscue allowed Henley to hit his 8-iron approach 20 feet left of the flag. Cantlay then hit an indifferent pitch shot to 15 feet from the hole but missed his par-saving attempt allowing Henley to two-putt from 20 feet for a par and his second career title on the Web.com Tour.
“This win means a little bit more than my victory in Athens last year,” Henley said. “It hasn’t been a smooth road for me and I had a tough start this year. I feel like I’ve overcome a lot and it feels good. I kept telling myself that I would eventually make it to the PGA Tour and if it didn’t happen this year, it would happen when I was ready to go. I wasn’t putting too much pressure on myself, I was trying to enjoy this tournament and this moment, rather than thinking what was ahead. I did that very well this week.”
The victory earned Henley a check for $99,000 and vaulted him from 35th place into the 12th spot with season earnings of $216,566. He also became the 20th different winner on the 2012 Web.com Tour.
Both Cantlay and Hoffmann, two former collegiate All-Americans, earned spots in next week’s Neediest Kids Championship at the TPC Potomac in suburban Washington, D.C. Cantlay had open qualified on Monday to get into the Chiquita event and was bidding to become the 21st player in Web.com Tour history to win as a qualifier. Hoffmann had earned a spot in the Chiquita field with a top-10 finish at last week’s WNB Golf Classic in Midland, Texas. He had also open qualified to get into the Web.com event in Midland.
Both players started the final round five strokes back of Henley and Canadian Brad Fritsch, the 54-hole co-leaders. They showed why they appear to be future stars in professional golf, each making seven birdies over the first 16 holes on Sunday to eventually tie Henley for the lead with two holes to go in regulation.
“I played really well today and yesterday so I’m happy where my game is at right now,” Cantlay said. “I know a bunch of good golf is ahead of me so I’m really looking forward to the next few events.”
Next year’s Chiquita Classic will be part of the Web.com Tour finals, a four-event series that will identify and finalize the 50 players who earn 2013-14 PGA Tour playing privileges, beginning in 2013.
Final Round Notes:
--An idle Luke Guthrie remained No. 1 on the money list with Casey Wittenberg moving back into second place ahead of Luke List who also didn’t play in Charlotte this week. Ben Kohles, who missed the cut this week, remains in fourth place while Robert Streb’s tie for fifth this week moved him ahead of Paul Haley II in fifth position. By finishing fourth this week, Canadian Brad Fritsch vaulted into the top 25, moving from 27th spot into 21st place.
--Sunday’s playoff was the sixth on the 2012 Web.com Tour and the first in Chiquita Classic history.
--Scott Dunlap’s final-round 68 gave him 12 consecutive sub-par rounds at the Chiquita Classic dating back to the inaugural event in 2010 near Cincinnati. Dunlap’s tie for fifth finish this week was also his best showing in 11 starts on the 2012 Web.com Tour.
--In addition to Patrick Cantlay, open qualifier Chris Epperson of Hilton Head Island, S.C., also earned a spot in next week’s Neediest Kids Championship by virtue of his tie for 14th this week at The Club at Longview. Epperson shot 67 at Rocky River Golf Club on Monday, the same venue where Cantlay posted his 69.
--Brazil’s Fernando Mechereffe, a graduate of North Carolina State who lives in Charlotte, tied for seventh this week, his best career finish on the Web.com Tour dating back to when he started playing on the circuit in 2007. Mechereffe is conditionally exempt on the Web.com Tour this year.
--The 247-yard, par-3 third hole played as the hardest this week (3.250), yielding just 32 total birdies and only two on Sunday. The 544-yard, par-5 fourth hole played as the easiest (4.614), giving up nine eagles and 197 birdies over three rounds.