Russell Henley flashes needed consistency to take lead at Tournament of Champions

Russell Henley plays his shot from the 12th tee during the first round of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club.

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KAPALUA, Hawaii –€“ Russell Henley made more than $2.2 million in five tournaments in 2014. The problem, though, was that he played 24 others in rather pedestrian fashion, missing the cut in half. He’s always been known as a good putter, so as Henley sets out on a new year, the goal is to become more consistent from tee to green.

One round in, and it’s so far, so good.

On a rare calm day at Kapalua’s winding Plantation Course, Henley made eight birdies and no bogeys to shoot 65 and jump into the opening-day lead at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Henley has worked with instructor Scott Hamilton since last summer to get his swing on a better plane, the goal being to try to be less steep at impact. The changes started to feel natural to him during the fall FedEx Cup Playoffs, when he had a pair of top-12 finishes. As for the putter? Well, that club always feels natural to him. On Friday, Henley poured in four putts of 20 or more feet. Tied for the lead coming down the dogleg, par-5 18th, he made things easier on himself, reaching in two shots to set up two putts from 40 feet for his eighth birdie of the afternoon. In all, he needed only 27 putts.

"If I could putt like that every day," he said, "I would probably have a few more wins."

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Sang-Moon Bae, who blistered his opening nine in 6 under, shot 66, and five players finished at 67, including Ryder Cuppers Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed. Defending champion Zach Johnson opened by shooting 68.

Henley went to see Hamilton for swing help after competing alongside fellow former Georgia Bulldogs Brendon Todd and Chris Kirk at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in June. Todd was the first to get help through Hamilton, and Kirk saw how well Todd was driving the golf ball and decided to see Hamilton as well. Frustrated by the inconsistency of his ballstriking, Henley figured he might as well follow suit.

"My misses weren’t very good," Henley said. "Anybody could hit a good shot. My misses, my bad shots, were just really bad. I was trying to make my misses better.

"And I played with Brendon Todd and Chris Kirk the first two rounds of Pinehurst, and both those guys drove the ball so good. Their misses weren’t bad at all and they are obviously great chippers and putters, (and) they played great. I was like, I can hit the ball better than I’m hitting it. I know I can hit it like them. … That’s why I chose Scott."

NOTES: Since the TOC moved to Hawaii in 1999, there are four players who have won at Kapalua and at Sony, which is on Oahu: Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Zach Johnson. Henley, the 2013 Sony Open champion, is bidding to become the fifth. . . . First-timer Ben Martin holed a chip from 45 yards for eagle at 18 to finish at 6-under 67. Robert Streb, another first-timer who had three top-10 finishes in the fall (including a victory at the McGladrey Classic), got off to a strong start as well, also shooting 67. He enters 2015 as the leader in the FedEx Cup standings. . . . Bubba Watson, making his fourth start at Kapalua, still has not shot lower than 69. He made two late bogeys and shot 70 on Friday. … Only two players shot over par in the first round: Kevin Stadler, who has an injured hand, and Ben Crane. Both shot 74.