A wild Sunday at PGA National ended in a four-man playoff, with Henley making good on his second chance at the par-5 18th to win the Honda Classic.
“This doesn’t feel real,” the former Georgia star said.
It didn’t look much differently, starting with Tiger Woods walking off the course after 13 holes because of lower back pain, and ending with a series of blunders over the closing holes of a tournament that no one seemed to want to win.
Eight yards away from where he had hit drive on the 18th in regulation, Henley ripped another 5-wood and aimed a little more right. It barely cleared the bunker and stopped 40 feet away on the green for a two-putt birdie that was good enough to win when McIlroy, Ryan Palmer and Russell Knox could only make par.
In regulation, Henley turned what should have been a good chance at birdie into a struggle for par by missing the green well to the left and chunking his chip only halfway to the hole. He had to two-putt from 60 feet for a par and a 72, joining the playoff at 8-under 272.
“So the next time, I just said, ‘All these guys are probably going to make birdie.’ And I just needed to trust my swing and put the best swing I can on it and not be too worried about where it goes,” Henley said.
For McIlroy, it was his tournament to lose, and he did just that.
He started with a two-shot lead and closed with a 74. The biggest blow came on the 16th hole, when he tried to hit 6-iron out of the bunker and over the water, caught too much sand and went in the water for double bogey. Still tied for the lead, he went long on the 17th and failed to save par from the bunker. Down to his last shot, he delivered the best one of the day — a 5-wood from 236 yards that dropped 12 feet from the hole.
His eagle putt for the win just slid by on the right. That turned out to be his best chance. In the playoff, with a drive about 10 yards longer, McIlroy went into a back bunker and couldn’t keep his next shot on the green.
“I didn’t play well enough to deserve a win (Sunday),” McIlroy said.
It was his second straight tournament in stroke play where he crashed out in the final group. Last month at the Dubai Desert Classic, he was two shots out of the lead and stumbled on the back nine to a 74.
“Seventy-four (Sunday) wasn’t good enough to get the job done,” McIlroy said. “Even if I had won, it would have felt a little bit undeserved in a way.”
So when you go out with a two-shot lead, you have to play well and you have to go out and win the thing. And if I had won, I would have counted myself very lucky. Just got to pick myself up, get back at it and try and get myself into contention at Doral next week and try and get the job done.”
Palmer was the only player in the final six groups to break par with a 69 on a day when PGA National showed some bite, with an average score of 71.8. Even so, he missed putts inside 8 feet on the last five holes, including a 5-footer for par on the 18th that would have won it in regulation.
In the playoff, he missed a 10-foot birdie putt to the left.
Knox needed a birdie in regulation for a chance to win, and instead went from the bunker to deep rough to over the green before making a 10-foot par putt and a 71. He was the only player to lay up in the playoff, and he missed a 20-foot birdie attempt.
Woods missed all the action.
He was 12 shots out of the lead and 5-over par for the day when he began gingerly placing the ball on the tee and picking it out of the cup. He removed his cap to shake hands with Luke Guthrie on the 13th tee — the farthest point from the clubhouse — and called for a ride back to the parking lot.
Woods said he would get treatment every day before deciding whether to play Doral next week.
Henley only had two top 10s since winning the Sony Open last year in his debut as a PGA Tour member. He was overwhelmed by the all the perks from winning so early, and now gets to experience it again.
The victory not only gets the 24-year-old from Georgia into the Masters, he moved into the top 50 in the world ranking and qualified for the Cadillac Championship next week at Doral. He also gets in two more World Golf Championships, and secured his spot in the PGA Championship.
What should ease the pain for McIlroy is another shot at winning, and the shot that nearly made that happen.
Trailing by one shot on the 549-yard closing hole, he hit 5-wood at the flag, a shot reminiscent of the 5-iron Woods hit two years ago for eagle and a 62. Except that McIlroy didn’t make the putt, and he didn’t get a chance better than that one.
McIlroy still had a better week at the Honda Classic when he was No. 1 in the world and walked off the course after 26 holes out of sheer frustration. This time, it was Woods who was No. 1 and walked off the course, surely concerned about increasing health issues.