“I guess I couldn’t have done any better right out of the gate,” demurs Russell Henley, the blond-haired boy wonder of the PGA from Macon, Georgia, the first PGA Tour rookie in a decade to win his debut event. But Kiawah Island Club members aren’t surprised by Henley’s early, and remarkable, successes. They’ve seen his polished swing, his smooth putts, his fierce determination. Henley and his PGA colleague Ben Martin are regulars on the Club’s courses, using the contours of Cassique and roughs on the River Course as their practice proving ground. And it’s clearly a win-win for the players and the Club.
Henley proved he wasn’t a one-shot rookie when he followed his breakout Sony Open win in January 2014 with a victory at the Honda Classic last March, besting Rory McIlroy and four others in a heated play-off. It was a strong showing as well for the Kiawah Island Club, which launched its PGA Ambassador program by sponsoring Henley, who came on board in 2014. Martin, currently ranked number four in the FedExCup standings, joined the Kiawah team in 2015 and now sports a Kiawah Island Club logo on his shirt and golf bag.
For Martin, a native of Greenwood, South Carolina, and an all-ACC golfer at Clemson, now in his third season on the PGA, representing the Kiawah Island Club is both an honor and a privilege and “just makes sense,” he says. “I grew up in South Carolina—I’ve always loved playing these courses—and Charleston is one of my favorite cities ever.” The fact that his long-time swing coach, Charles Frost, made the move to the River Course was a further draw. “It’s great to have Charles here, and to have Russell to play against and to practice with,” adds Martin, who competed against Henley at the collegiate level.
Henley has lived in Charleston since 2012, moving to the Lowcountry after graduating from the University of Georgia, where he set a school record with eight tournament wins and earned the 2010 Haskins Award, which honors the nation’s top collegiate golfer. A natural and driven athlete, in addition to golf, Henley was adept on the soccer field and played point guard on the varsity basketball team throughout high school. He loves the challenge of Kiawah’s courses, and he enjoys meeting and playing with the Club members and practicing with Martin.
“Both Cassique and the River Course are great preparation for the PGA Tour. They’re in perfect condition year-round, which is important. You can’t just go play any course and be able to compete on Tour,” says Henley, who plays some twenty-five PGA events a year with “Kiawah Island Club” featured prominently on his golf bag. “Plus they’re absolutely beautiful. I’m happy when I’m around the marsh—it’s so peaceful.”
Not that peace and quiet and manicured fairways are the be-all for Henley and Martin. Both are young, personable, and fun loving, enjoying the perks of PGA travel while maturing as professionals. Martin splits his time between Kiawah and Greenville, where he and his wife, Kelly, currently reside. He considers his level-headedness one of his best strengths on the golf course. “For me it’s been a steady progression. I try to get a little better every day, every season,” says Martin, who won his first PGA tournament, the Shriners Hospital for Children Open, in 2014. “I always keep the bigger picture in mind.”
Henley is equal parts fidgety and focused. He’s an avid boater and fisherman (casting off Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms), a hungry Charleston foodie (Basil, Rarebit, Hank’s), and a mean guitarist (“acoustic, new country”). His hobbies are mostly a counterpoint to balance the intensity with which he approaches his primary passion—golf. “My friends might say I’m a little tightly wound,” he grins. “I’m always thinking, always going and moving. If I’m not working on my game, I’m doing something.”
“Russell is the type of player who loves to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game. He lives for the big moment and is at his best when the pressure is the greatest. This is a rare trait but a necessity to be a successful PGA Tour player,” says Frost. “I expect we’ll see both Russell and Ben continue making pressure shots, like Ben’s incredible forty-five-foot eagle putt on the 16th hole that propelled him to victory at the Shriners Open last fall. I look forward to them representing Kiawah Island Club for years to come.”
The PGA ambassador program is part of a multipronged approach by South Street Partners, the Kiawah Island Club’s new owners, to further enhance the Club’s golf program. “Our plan is to grow and expand the golf experience and to remind people that Kiawah is one of the preeminent golf destinations in the country.” says Chris Randolph, a partner with South Street.
“Avid golfers are certainly one of our target audiences, so sponsoring young and incredibly talented players like Russell and Ben has been a smart move,” Randolph adds. “They are both great with our members, so friendly and accessible, telling them what’s happening on the Tour. It’s not just the caliber of athletes that they are but also their outstanding characters. Russ and Ben are great guys and terrific ambassadors for Kiawah.”