A stand-out high school basketball player has risen to the top of the leader board heading into today’s final round of the U.S. Open Golf Tournament.
Russell Henley, who was a varsity basketball player in Macon, Georgia, finished yesterday’s third round at five-under-par and tied with two others with one more round to play.
This is a different kind of sports story. You don’t often hear about a guy who excelled at high school basketball then going on to become a pro golfer. The vast majority of pro golfers focus heavily on golf at a young age and stop playing other sports.
Because conventional wisdom, especially among parents and coaches, is that if you want to be great at one sport you need to stop playing the others because it’ll take time away from pursuing greatness in one. Especially once you get to high school.
This is why Henley’s path to prominence is so compelling and unusual.
It’s intriguing because of the fundamental comparisons of basketball and golf. In some ways, they’re quite similar. To excel at either one, you need to be athletic, have good balance, and possess sharp and natural hand-eye coordination. You also need mental toughness, competitive fire, and the willingness to practice the skills of the sport, especially swinging and shooting, repetitively.
But there are significant differences – and why it’s impressive that Henley has shown high levels of skill at both. You play basketball with a rather large big ball; the other a small one. One uses a circular ring; the other a club and pins. Instead of shooting a basketball, you swing at a golf ball. You play basketball mostly indoors; golf is all outdoors. How tall you are matters a lot in hoops but hardly at all in golf.
The lateral quickness you need for basketball isn’t needed to score low in golf. How high you jump counts for nothing in golf. Basketball is a team game; golf is all about the individual.
If these two sports were so compatible, like hockey and lacrosse among high school athletes, more golfers would have played high school basketball. But almost none of them do.
During high school, he started as point guard on his high school varsity basketball team while playing on the golf team.
His swing coach Bobby Hix and future head coach at the University of Georgia, Chris Haack, encouraged him to play basketball because he excelled at it, according to an article on the Telegraph, a Macon, Georgia news site.
“Playing other sports gave him an advantage,” Hix said. “One of the key elements to swinging a golf club is balance. Basketball helped things like balance and hand-eye coordination. But as a point guard, it really helped his decision-making process. The competitive nature of a team sport gave him an edge over everyone else.”
Charles Frost, another golf swing coach, added these insights in Kiawah Legends Magazine.
“Russell is the type of player who loves to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game. He lives for the big moment and is at his best when the pressure is the greatest. This is a rare trait but a necessity to be a successful PGA Tour player.”
Henley, a resident of Charleston, South Carolina since 2012, talked about his passion for basketball in an article on The State, a South Carolina news site.
“I loved other sports growing up. I wanted to play college basketball but I think I chose the right sport,” he said. “I think that the reason that I never got burned out with golf because I did play basketball through high school. I think if I had to play it year-round, I would have gotten tired of it.”
That decision has paid off. For his golfing excellence at the University of Georgia, he won the 2010 Haskins Awards that honor the nation’s top college golfer. He’s won three PGA Tour events: The Sony Open (2013), Honda Classic (2014), and Shell Houston Open (2017).
In the Sony Open, he became the first PGA Tour rookie to win his first tournament in 12 years. In that event, he posted the second-lowest score for a 72-hold tournament in PGA history (24 under par).
In an article on Eye On the Tour, Henley said his golf game developed differently than most PGA Tour pros. “I would say I’m probably homemade. When I was in high school, I played basketball and golf, and so when golf came around, I never really went and hit many balls. I just wanted to go play with my friends. I think they redid the range a couple of years when I was in high school, or one of the years, so I just got used to going and playing golf.”
So in the final round of today’s US Open – one of the biggest golf tournaments of the year – watch what happens if he has the ball in his hands at the end of the game. Will any of his basketball skills help him win his first Major golf title?
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