Russell Henley had the lowest 36-hole score of his career on a course where he won his first PGA Tour event, and he knew better to expect everything to fall into place.
He did just enough Saturday in the Sony Open, particularly over the final hour when he made key putts for birdie, par and one bogey.
That led to a 3-under 67 and a two-shot lead over Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, who took only 25 putts and isn’t quite sure how some of them went in. Matsuyama had a 63, his 12th consecutive round in the 60s this season dating to the CJ Cup in Las Vegas.
“I figured it wouldn’t be quite as easy as the first two days,” said Henley, who opened with rounds of 62-63. “It’s just not how golf works typically. I wasn’t planning on making bogeys, but definitely wasn’t expecting to shoot 8 under again. But at the same time, I felt really good about my game all day. I never really got too nervous or too ahead of myself.”
He had chances to panic.
Henley misjudges his lie in thicker than usual rough for Waialae just left of the fairway on the 13th hole, came up short of the green in more rough, dumped the next shot in a bunker and had to had a 6-foot putt just to salvage bogey.
“That was a nice save instead of making double,” Henley said. “Had some nice holed putts down the stretch. I’m really thankful and happy with how I putted.”
Henley regained the lead with a 12-foot birdie putt on the 15th hole. He kept it by avoiding a long three-putt on the 16th, making a comebacker from 8 feet. He made a 15-footer on the 17th to create a cushion.
He was a 18-under 192 and will be paired with Matsuyama, as popular in Honolulu as any stop on the PGA Tour outside Japan.
Matsuyama will be going for his second win his season — he won the Zozo Championship outside Tokyo last fall — and the eighth of his career, which would tie him with K.J. Choi of South Korea for most wins by an Asian-born player.
This is hardly a two-man race at Waialae, a course with a history of players coming out of the pack with something in the low 60s, and such a score is certainly possible in these conditions.
Seamus Power of Ireland birdied his last two holes for a 65, leaving him four shots behind, along with Matt Kuchar (67) and Adam Svensson of Canada (65) and Haotong Li of China, who was in the mix until a tough finish.
Li was one shot behind with four holes to play. But then Henley birdied the 15th, and Li made a mess of the 16th hole, which bends to the left round houses and out toward the Pacific, the big “W” of palm trees behind the green.
Li went way left off the tee. He went way right with his shot, some 20 yards beyond the 17th tee. He hacked out short and chipped long and took two putts for a double bogey. That left him four shots behind, but he didn’t lose his sense of humor.
With his tee shot on a decent line off the tee at the par-3 17th, Li said loud enough for the gallery to hear, “Hole-in-one, please.” No such luck. He missed a birdie putt from just inside 15 feet, finishing with a long two-putt birdie and still had hope.
Lucas Glover (64) and Kevin Kisner (65) were five shots behind.
So much depends on Henley, won the Sony Open in the first tournament of his rookie season in 2013. That was his only victory in the five times he has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead. Even so, his putting stroke and his comfort at Waialae figures to help.
“Russell seems to be the guy when he gets out in front and is playing well and confident, he seems to rise to the occasion,” Kisner said. “I think he’s going to be a tough competitor to try to beat.”
Matsuyama looked up to the task, especially late in his round. He knocked in a 40-foot birdie putt on the 13th, and then holed a 15-footer for par on the next hole.
He laid well back off the 15th tee with a 4-iron, a smart move because he was in the right side of the fairway with a large tree blocking his way to the pin on the right of the green. He had an 8-iron and enough room to sent it over the tree to 15 feet for another birdie.
“Putting was a strong point today. Even my missed putts found the hole,” Matsuyama said through an interpreter. “I was lucky today.”