By Jeff Mills
Special to the Wyndham Championship
GREENSBORO — Russell Henley has been in this situation before: in the lead at the Wyndham Championship after posting a very low number on Sedgefield Country Club’s classic Donald Ross golf course.
But this time, Henley hopes things will end up differently come Sunday.
Henley shot an 8-under 62 in the first round on a rainy Thursday at the Wyndham, and he’ll start Friday’s round alone atop the leaderboard, one shot ahead of both Adam Svensson and Byeong Hun An.
Andrew Novak shot 6-under 64 and is alone in fourth place.
Henley has played very well in Greensboro. This is his seventh-consecutive start at the Wyndham, and he has finished in the top 10 in his last three tournaments at Sedgefield. That includes 2021, when he faltered on Sunday and finished one shot outside of a six-man playoff won by Kevin Kisner.
“I was leading by three going in the final round a couple years ago,” Henley said, “and I was leading the tournament by a few going into No. 11 on the last day a couple years ago. And I didn’t get it done. That’s a good learning experience, you know. I feel like I’ve gotten better as a player because of it.”
It’s a hard lesson to learn. And maybe the golf gods smiled on Henley this time. The rain relented when he teed off in the afternoon Thursday, and the softened greens were receptive to approach shots.
“The first little bit of the front nine, it was raining,” Henley said. “I felt like, ‘Man, this could be a tough day, especially if it picks up a little bit.’ I was hoping it would slow down a little bit, and it did on the back nine. We were fortunate. I hit a lot of fairways and felt like from there I could attack the golf course.”
It was a different story in the soggy morning rounds. And that made things challenging for players with a whole lot on the line.
Each year, the Wyndham Championship marks the end of the PGA Tour’s regular season. But the truth is, the Wyndham Championship is really more of a wildcard playoff tournament. And never more so than this year.
This year, for the first time, the field for the FedEx Cup playoffs has shrunk. Instead of the top 125 players in the points standings advancing, now only the top 70 qualify for the playoff opener, next week’s St. Jude Championship in Memphis.
And so the Wyndham Championship opened on a rainy Thursday with a pair of stars on the outside looking in, competing for their playoff lives.
Adam Scott, a former World No. 1 ranked player and Masters champion, shot a 5-under 65 in the morning to take the early lead. The 43-year-old Australian is tied for fifth place. He started the day 81st in the FedEx standings and ended it projected 68th.
Justin Thomas, a 30-year-old two-time major champion, shot even-par 70 in his morning round and has work to do in the second round to make the cut. Thomas started the round 79th in the FedEx standings and lost ground in his chase to make the playoffs.
Thomas, a fan favorite here, played his first PGA TOUR event in Greensboro as a 16-year-old AJGA amateur in 2009. He made the cut then, giving us all a glimpse of the stellar pro career yet to come.
And now he’s struggling. He made two birdies and two bogeys in his first round.
“I’m not very far away at all, from the lead or from being where I need to be,” Thomas said. “But yeah, it was a little frustrating. I had a hard time getting things going, and I feel like I had a couple of chances on my front nine and especially my back nine to shoot 2- or 3-under today. But even par isn’t going to kill me.”
Thomas played 16 of his 18 holes in a steady, drizzling, farmer’s rain.
“I hung in there, I just didn’t hit it very close to the hole,” Thomas said. “I hit a couple bad wedges and short irons with the ball at my feet. I struggled with trust and swinging with the slope. … The rain was honestly more frustrating than anything. You couldn’t get consistency with how the ball would react and whatnot with the rough.
“That’s a bummer, especially in the position that I’m in and the scores I need. But who knows what will happen the rest of the way?”
Scott, meanwhile, played well in the rain. He made seven birdies to go along with two bogeys — including a disappointing two-putt bogey on his final hole of the day.
“I’m really happy with the round,” Scott said. “You know, we’ve had a good bit of practice in the rain the last few weeks over in the U.K. … I putt very nicely, and I generally scramble quite well, which around here is very helpful. The greens are pretty demanding. There’s a lot of break on putts and when you’re seeing a few go in, you can really make up for any other errors. I think that’s what I did today.”
Scott bogeyed his second hole, but then made birdies of four of his next six holes. It changed everything.
“When you’re a couple over early,” Scott said, “you start finding the golf course much more difficult than it probably really is, and it’s hard to find that momentum. So those early birdies were good.”
Scott and Thomas will play in the afternoon rounds Friday. And both could use every birdie they can get to keep their postseason hopes alive.