PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — On a day when Tiger Woods walked off the course and Rory McIlroy reverted to his 2013 form, it was an under-the-radar, second-year pro who walked off with the Honda Classic trophy.
Russell Henley, a former All-American at Georgia whose previous claim to fame was winning his first PGA Tour start, emerged as the winner when he birdied the first hole of a four-man playoff.
Although McIlroy shot a 4-over 74 Sunday after leading each of the first three rounds, he still had a chance to win the tournament in regulation. But he missed a 12-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole.
McIlroy, Russell Knox and Ryan Palmer all posted pars on the playoff hole, the 18th on the Champion course.
Henley, who earned $2 million as a PGA Tour rookie in 2013, won $1.08 million Sunday.
“This doesn’t feel real,” said Henley, who shot the best round of his tour career, a 64, in the first round and remained within striking distance with 68s in Rounds 2 and 3 and a 72 Sunday. “I just tried to hang in there the best I could and not let my emotions get too up or down no matter what happened.”
The bombshell events of the day began when Woods, who had shot a 5-over 40 on the front nine, withdrew because of back spasms after completing the 13th hole. Woods said he was uncertain about his status for the WGC-Cadillac Championship this week at Doral.
With Phil Mickelson and world No. 3 Henrik Stenson having missed the cut and No. 2 Adam Scott quietly closing out his 12th-place finish, what star power remained belonged mostly to McIlroy, who had gone 4-0 with a 54-hole lead since his blowup in the 2011 Masters.
After a brilliant opening 63, McIlroy’s game had been slipping since, from 66 in the second round to 69 in the third. He held it together through 15 holes Sunday before a long second shot out of a bunker at the par-4 16th found the water, leading to a double-bogey that finally deprived him of sole possession of the lead.
“Obviously the second shot on 16 was what sort of killed me,” McIlroy said.
He had one more chance to win. After hitting his 238-yard second shot to 12 feet he had an eagle putt, but slipped it by the hole. That put him in a playoff with Henley, Knox and Palmer, who Sunday posted 71 and 69, respectively.
Henley, who has played in only 34 tour events, hadn’t been in a playoff at this level but competed in a playoff in the SEC Tournament and later on the Web.com Tour. He won both.
“So I’ve had a couple and been pretty successful with them so far,” he said. “Hopefully I can keep doing that.”
Henley, McIlroy and Palmer all put their drives on the par-5 18th in the fairway, with Knox in a bunker. After Knox laid up, Palmer pulled his approach left and McIlroy flew the green. Henley then ripped a 5-wood from 235 yards onto the putting surface.
“I didn’t know I could hit it that far,” he said.
He was the only one of the three to get down in two from there, sinking a 2-foot putt for the win. None of the other three has won in a playoff, McIlroy and Palmer now sitting 0-2 and Knox 0-1.
Henley, 24, became one of four players under 25 on the PGA Tour with more than one victory, joining McIlroy (6), Patrick Reed (2) and Harris English (2).
What made Henley’s week-long consistency so impressive is how unimpressive his season had been so far. He had missed four of nine cuts this season — including three in his last four events — and his best finish had been 27th in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in early January.
A couple of weeks ago, he shot at 78 at the Northern Trust Open and followed that with a 66. It wasn’t enough to make the cut but he said it set the stage for success.
“I took the momentum from that Friday into this week for sure,” he said. “Had a really nice round, almost made the cut, and it sounds funny, but that gave me a lot of confidence, to know I could go from basically last place to almost making the cut. I just kind of rode that confidence into this week.”
The win assures Henley, a native of Macon, Ga., a spot in the Masters. He played August for the first time last year and shot 81 on his birthday to miss the cut. He’s excited about getting another chance.
“I saw a couple Masters commercials this week and it hurt to know I wasn’t in,” he said. “And I just kept thinking to myself, I can’t imagine not playing again.”
“I try to think positive and not get my hopes up too much, but hopefully this year will be a little better than last.”