HONOLULU – Russell Henley set a strong target Friday in the Sony Open when he was 6 under over his final six holes and closed with a 30-foot eagle putt for a 7-under 63 and a three-shot lead among the early starters at Waialae.
So much of the morning was up for grabs after 18-hole leader Kevin Na began to fade, with as many as five players having at least a share of the lead.
Henley made the turn by holing a greenside bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 18th hole, only to miss the green long and into a back bunker for bogey on the toughest first hole.
And then he couldn't miss. He birdied both par 3s on the front nine from inside 10 feet, holed a pair of 12-foot birdie putts and finished with his eagle.
That put him at 15-under 125, three shots ahead of Haotong Li (65), and four clear of Matt Kuchar, who has been in Hawaii since four days before Christmas and sounds like he is in no hurry to leave.
Waialae is where it all started for Henley. He began his rookie season in 2013 at the Sony Open by setting a 36-hole record at the time at 126 and outlasting Scott Langley in a weekend duel to win. Henley previously had won on the Nationwide Tour when he was still at Georgia.
Easy game, right?
“Didn't take me very long to realize it's really hard,” Henley said, who has three career victories as he starts his 10th year on tour. “Had a lot of up-and-downs my first year, second year, I mean, every year. After this first one, I remember thinking it might be easier than I thought.”
He laughed before adding, “But it's not.”
It felt easy at times on another gorgeous day along the Pacific, with minimal wind and an abundance of tropical warmth, and pure greens. The flat stick can be his best club in the bag, and Henley was just as deft with the 6-foot putts as some of his birdies.
Li has had a few big moments in his career, most notably at Harding Park in 2020 when he became the first player from China to hold the lead after any round in a major. He was two ahead in that PGA Championship until fading on the weekend.
He also was at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne at the end of 2019, though that didn't go so well, starting in the practice round when his fill-in caddie got lost and decided to head into the clubhouse for coffee as Li played on out of another player's bag. He lost both his matches.
Ditching contact lenses for designer glasses, he was steady in his round of 65, leaving him in contention for the weekend while playing on a sponsor exemption.
Another exemption was equally impressive, if not more. Keita Nakajima, the No. 1 amateur in the world, had an early bogey that left him around the cut line. He answered with a 6-iron to 12 feet for birdie on the par-3 17th, and he shot 30 on the back nine for a 64.
Nakajima was in the large group six shots behind Henley, a group that included Stewart Cink (63), Seamus Power of Ireland (68) and Chris Kirk (65).
Na opened with a 61 and was 10 shots worst the next day. He didn't make a birdie until his ninth hole and kept burning the edges on putts. On Thursday, some of those putts he narrowly missed were for birdie in his bid for a sub-60 round. On Friday, they were for par, and it sent him from a one-shot lead after the opening round to seven shots behind Henley.
Cameron Smith, who won at Kapalua at 34-under par, had a 71 and was headed toward a missed cut.
Kuchar has been over on the Big Island since Dec. 21, and he plans to take the next two weeks off before heading over to the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Even though he has missed the cut the last two years at Waialae, this is a tournament he doesn't like to miss. Plus, he won the Sony Open three years ago.
He birdied five of his last 10 holes.
“Love the golf course. Love the environment,” Kuchar said. “You throw in the state of Hawaii, as well. For me it's a paradise and always excited to come here.”