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Crazy Sunday at Honda Classic
In what turned out to be a wild final round at the $6 million Honda Classic, Russell Henley came through in the clutch to survive a four-man playoff and nail down his second career title with a birdie on the first extra hole on the tough Champion Course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
The 24-year-old Georgian, whose first win came in the Sony Open a year ago, closed with a 2-over 72 to end up tied in regulation at 8-under 272 with Ryan Palmer (69), Scotland's Russell Knox (71) and Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy entered Sunday in the driver's seat with a two-stroke lead over Henley. He was positioned for a wire-to-wire win and his first title in the U.S. since the BMW Championship in September 2012.
But it wasn't the Northern Irishman's day. After carding two birdies and three bogeys on the front nine, the 24-year-old struggled on the home half with two bogeys - on the 12th and 17th holes - and a double on the par-4 16th to come back to the field.
Still, the Ulsterman, at 7-under par, had a chance on the 72nd hole. Now a stroke behind Knox, Henley and Palmer, McIlroy found the fairway off the tee on the par-5 and then hit one of the best shots of the year - a fairway wood from 245 yards to 12 feet and the daunting back-right pin on the water-ringed green.
With Henley, also in the final group, off to the left of the green and following a feeble third shot to 60 feet away - where he two-putted for the par, McIlroy stepped up for the eagle try and shocking come-from-behind win. But the putt went wide of the mark and he tapped in for birdie to set up the four-way playoff.
Remarkably, if McIlroy made that putt it would have been his first eagle on Champion after playing 377 holes on the course.
On the first extra hole, the 18th, only Henley found the green in two. After laying up to 112 yards, Knox put his third below the cup to 20 feet, while Palmer hit his approach left of the green onto a shaved part of the fringe. McIlroy couldn't duplicate his incredible second shot on the 72nd hole, hitting over the short grass and into a deep bunker.
Going first, Palmer chipped to 10 feet, while McIlroy blasted out of the sand through the green and into the rough. Henley then stroked his winning eagle try to two feet and waited to see what happened next.
Knox missed his birdie chance, as did Palmer. McIlroy then chunked his fourth before sinking his par attempt. All Henley had to do was make his short birdie try for the victory, and he did.
"I don't know what is going on right now," the Macon native said at greenside. "This isn't going to sink in for awhile. I was so nervous coming down the stretch. Just hanging in there and trying to enjoy every step. The crowd today was nothing like I have ever experienced. I wish I could play in front of a crowd like that every day."
As for how he was able to perform under pressure and ultimately overtake McIlroy, Henley added, "I enjoy the rush - that's why you play."
The victory was worth $1.08 million, 500 FedEx Cup points, and a second trip to the Masters for Henley.
A disconsolate McIlroy tried gamely to explain what happened down the stretch. "I just started hitting loose shots . . . but I did well. It was good to make it to the playoff. I was lucky to make it to the playoff."
As for closing with an unspectacular 74, the two-time major champion added, "If I'd have won today, I would've considered myself quite lucky."
Billy Hurley III posted a 69 to finish in solo fifth at 7-under 273 and a stroke out of the playoff, while tied for sixth at 6-under were Canada's David Hearn (67) and Will MacKenzie (70).
Spain's Sergio Garcia (67), Sweden's David Lingmerth (70), England's Luke Donald (72) and Australia's Stuart Appleby (72) shared eighth at 275.
After getting to 5-under par through 54 holes off a third-round 5-under 65, Tiger Woods made an unceremonious exit when he withdrew after 13 holes, citing back trouble.
On Sunday he played the par-35 front nine in 5-over and carded four pars on the back before pulling out. It was the seventh time in Woods' career he withdrew from a tournament, and the fourth in the last five years.
"(The back problem) started this morning during warm-ups," Woods said through spokesman Glenn Greenspan, who accompanied Woods off the course in a van.
As for being in good enough shape to defend his title in next week's WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, Woods said, "It's too early to tell. I'll get treatment every day to try and calm it down. Don't know yet. We'll see how I am - wait till Thursday and see how it feels."
Woods noted the pain arose from the same place as at The Barclays last summer when he suffered back spasms in the final round so severe that he fell to his knees in pain. Though he finished second behind Adam Scott in that tournament, the ailment plagued him through the next two tournaments.
Woods said he spent the off-season not practicing as much as in previous years in an effort to ease the problem, but apparently it still exists. "I took a lot of time off this winter to get ready for the season because it's going to be a long grind," he said.
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