BILL DWYRE

Russell Henley arrives with a flourish

PGA Tour rookie is a popular golfer in the desert after winning his debut with a 24-under total at Sony Open.

Wednesday in the desert was a day for fist bumps and well-wishing for Russell Henley, the new wonder on the PGA Tour.

The tournament that Southern California learned to love under the banner of the Bob Hope Desert Classic, now called the Humana Challenge, was a day away. So was even warmer weather, although the mid-60s of Wednesday, with no wind and postcard mountains serving as a backdrop, would be hard to top anywhere in the country right now.

In the rhythms of pro golf, this was hit-and-giggle time at the driving range and practice area.

Henley, who would normally be just another twenty-something tour newcomer who has all his hair and a golf swing they could use in textbooks, was not merely blending into the landscape, as were most of his peers. His reputation had preceded him.

That reputation was built on only four recent rounds of golf. But in this swift-moving world of fast fame and faster flameout, Henley was now somebody to watch, rather than somebody to merely identify.

Henley won the Sony Open in Hawaii on Sunday. It was his first regular PGA Tour event. He had played in the big leagues only twice before, both times as an amateur in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Opens. Last year, he spent his time winning $400,116 and two tournaments on the triple-A Web.com Tour and thereby gaining his PGA Tour card.

The Sony was basically, at age 23, his new beginning. There was no reason to expect instant success. There certainly was no reason to expect what happened.

Henley shot rounds of 63-63-67-63. The temptation was to ask him why he had that bad round. The 256 total was 24 under par and it was achieved on a Waialae Country Club course that, undefended by usual windy conditions, yielded like seldom before.

Sports statistics are usually less revealing than reporters make them. Not these.

Henley had 18 birdies on the par fours. When he was approaching from between 100-125 yards, he never missed a green. Yes, 100% efficiency. He is 6 feet, 180 pounds and his driving average was 293 yards. His paycheck was $1,008,000. The victory got him into any regular PGA event he wants to enter through the 2015 season. It also got him into this year's Masters and PGA.

But the real dazzler? Under the ultimate pressure to win his first tour event, he birdied the last five holes. Try that in your Thursday afternoon $2 Nassau at Whispering Sewers. Then think about doing it with a million bucks on the line. Since 1983, only three others on the tour have finished the last five holes of a tournament in five under par, and each is a pretty fair country golfer — Lanny Wadkins in 1985, David Duval in 1999 and Rory McIlroy in 2010. And each had an eagle to offset a par.

"It's been a dream," Henley said during the Wednesday prime time news conference usually reserved for golfers with greater name recognition. "I'm just really excited to be here and play another golf tournament this week."

Even more excited are his bankers and financial advisors.

"The pressure is kind of off me a little now," Henley said. "I'm in a good category."

Henley had been a star player at the University of Georgia, from which he graduated in 2011 with a degree in consumer economics. He had also been a star point guard on the high school basketball team at Stratford Academy in Macon, Ga., where the students donned Hawaiian shirts Tuesday to celebrate Russell Henley Day. How young is Henley? He said he still knows some of the seniors there.

Wednesday afternoon, news conference over, Henley stood alongside a practice green and hit 30-yard pitches. First 10 and a pause, then 15, then five more. Two stopped outside of five feet, the rest in gimme range.

Fellow players stopped to chat. Overnight, Henley has become recognizable. He is kind of a cross between Brandt Snedeker and Huck Finn. A walk along the driving range with a reporter brought more pats on the back and congratulatory fist bumps.

There was nice day-before-the-tournament buzz everywhere.

U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson drove one 300-yard bullet after another dead straight toward the crystal-clear mountains. Is he human or a machine?

Bill Haas, former winner here and only 16 months removed from his famous FedEx Cup water shot worth more than $11 million, putted and chatted.

Brendon de Jonge, who shot 69-68-69-69 in the Sony and tied for 54th, worked on his long-iron game.

There was also buzz about Phil Mickelson, the tournament's marquee player this year, who was nowhere around while trying to recover from flu for Thursday's tee time.

Henley said he was tired, that he needed a good night's sleep to be ready for this tournament. He yawned as he walked along and answered questions.

But nap time would have to wait. There were questions to answer, more hands to shake, more fists to bump and more unexpected responsibilities for the PGA Tour's freshest new face.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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