Friday May 27th, 2016 6:40AM

A surprise win for former Bulldog Russell Henley

By The Associated Press
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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Tiger Woods left early. Rory McIlroy faded late. And when a most unpredictable Honda Classic finally concluded with a four-man playoff, Russell Henley was as surprised as anyone to be holding the trophy.

His first comments after his second PGA Tour victory sized up a wild Sunday in south Florida.

"I don't know what's going on," Henley said.

He had reason to be surprised. Henley had only finished in the top 10 twice since winning the Sony Open 14 months ago in his debut as a PGA Tour member. He missed the cut in his most recent event. He started the final round two shots behind, and the guy he was chasing was McIlroy, who for three days had shown great poise, a wonderful touch with the putter and a swing that looked hard to beat.

"This is not exactly what I was expecting at the start of the week," Henley said.

And that doesn't account for the final hour at PGA National.

Russell Knox made a double bogey on the 14th hole. Henley made a double bogey on the 15th hole. McIlroy made a double bogey on the 16th hole. All three of them made it into the playoff with Ryan Palmer, whose 1-under 69 made him the only player from the last six groups who broke par. Palmer wasn't without his problems. He couldn't hit the green with a wedge on the par-5 18th hole and missed a 5-foot putt for par.

For the longest time, it looked like a tournament that no one wanted to win.

Henley won with one swing, though it took a second chance.

On the 18th hole in regulation, he pulled his 5-wood to the left, away from the water, and had about 40 yards to get up-and-down for birdie. He chunked his wedge halfway to the hole and then had to two-putt from 60 feet for a 72 just to get in the playoff.

"So the next time, I just said, `All these guys are probably going to make birdie.' And I just needed to trust my swing and put the best swing I can on it and not be too worried about where it goes," Henley said.

His caddie, Adam Hayes, suggested he aim more to the right, and the ball narrowly cleared a bunker and settled 40 feet away. He two-putted for birdie, while McIlroy, Knox and Palmer all made par. Palmer missed a 10-foot birdie putt, Knox missed from 20 feet and McIlroy went long into the bunker and blasted out through the green.

Woods missed all the action.

He was 12 shots out of the lead and 5-over par for the day when he began gingerly placing the ball on the tee and picking it out of the cup. He removed his cap to shake hands with Luke Guthrie on the 13th tee - the farthest point from the clubhouse - and called for a ride back to the parking lot.

Woods said he would get treatment every day before deciding whether to play Doral next week. This is not the way he envisioned the start of his road to the Masters. Two months into the year, Woods now has completed only 10 rounds and has more initials than numbers - MDF at Torrey Pines (the PGA Tour's acronym for a missed 54-hole cut), a tie for 41st in Dubai and a WD at the Honda Classic.

How these four players got into the playoff was remarkable because they got there by default.

- Palmer missed three putts inside 8 feet on the final five holes, including the bogey on the 18th hole. He was the first to finish at 8-under 272.

- Knox played the most consistently, his only big gaffe coming on the 14th hole when he tries to play a tough shot out of the rough and saw it carom to the right and into the water for double bogey. Following three good pars, a birdie on the 18th would have given him the lead. But he chunked a fairway bunker shot into deep rough, hit that one over the green and had to make a 10-foot par putt to stay in a share of the lead with a 71.

- Henley chipped in for birdie on the 14th hole to tie for the lead. On his next shot, his 6-iron sailed well right of the par-3 15th green and into the water for a double bogey. He closed with three pars, though one of them contributed mightily. From a tough lie in thick grass, he smashed a 4-iron over the water to two-putt range on the 16th.

- McIlroy was in control until he took too much sand with a 6-iron out of a fairway bunker on the 16th hole, and he knew it. He pressed the shaft of his club against the back of his neck as the ball descended into the lake, leading to double bogey. Then, he fell out of the lead for the first time when he made bogey from the back bunker on the par-3 17th, missing an 8-foot par putt.

Needing a birdie on the 18th for a chance at a playoff, McIlroy showed his stuff. He belted a 5-wood from 236 yards and clapped his hands together when it dropped 12 feet from the hole. And when Henley messed up his chip, McIlroy had that eagle putt for the win.

It was just wide to the right. He never got a better chance. He shot 74.

"Seventy-four today wasn't good enough to get the job done," McIlroy said. "Even if I had won, it would have felt a little bit undeserved in a way. So when you go out with a two-shot lead, you have to play well and you have to go out and win the thing. And if I had won today, I would have counted myself very lucky. Just got to pick myself up, get back at it and try and get myself into contention at Doral next week and try and get the job done."
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