- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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CROMWELL, Conn. -- When Connecticut native J.J. Henry won the erstwhile Buick Championship (now called the Travelers Championship) last year for his first career PGA Tour victory, he called it "unbelievable" three times, in fact, in his first answer after sitting down with the media.
Birthdate: April 2, 1975
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 190 lbs.
Turned professional: 1998
Joined PGA Tour: 2001
Special interests: All sports
On Monday, Henry returned to TPC-River Highlands for the first time since that day, meeting with the media in advance of this year's tournament. We put Henry on the ESPN.com Hot Seat, asking him about that victory, the upcoming Players Championship and some weighty issues on the PGA Tour.
Q: In the past 12 months, you won your first PGA Tour title, played on your first Ryder Cup team and competed in your first Masters. Has it been as fun as it sounds?
A: It's been more so. Obviously, to be out here for six years and finally break through and win my first event and from there, to get a chance to play in the Ryder Cup, to represent your country with 11 other teammates that you really feel like you have a close bond with, and then a month ago playing in my first Masters, having my little 2½-year-old caddie for me in the Par-3 Contest. It was actually funny to look up at the leaderboard Thursday after about five holes and see I was at 2-under leading by myself was pretty cool. I joked to my caddie, "Whether I shoot 65 or 85, I can say I was leading the Masters." It's been a heck of a run, there's no doubt. I'm looking forward to what lies ahead.
Q: So, what do you do for an encore?
A: You get a taste of playing at that level, I think you want it that much more. You're hungry for it again and not that I've got off to a great start this year, but I'm starting to come into my own. I've played well the last two or three weeks and I feel like I've always played well this time of year, whether it's because I grew up in this area or not. I've never really played well out West, so I'm looking forward to carrying forward what transpired toward the end of last year.
Q: OK, this is the Hot Seat, after all, so which experience was the best -- the victory in Hartford, the Ryder Cup or the Masters?
A: Wow, that's a tough question. Obviously, the victory is one thing and it gives you [the opportunities]. But to get a chance to represent your country is something that, as a golfer, to have 11 other teammates and the pressure, the anxiety you feel, the crowds -- it's something I wouldn't change for the world.
Q: You've said that being a Connecticut native, the Hartford tour stop is your personal fifth major. After winning the tournament last year, does that mean one down, four to go for the career Grand Slam?
A: [Laughs] No question. And you know, I put so much pressure on myself to play well here, it's probably the hardest one to win. You want it so badly and you get so many people out here rooting you on, kind of carrying the Connecticut flag for professional golf right now and heck, man, I couldn't think of a better place to win my first event.
Q: How many friends and family members did you have in the gallery last year?
A: Well, there were probably 40 or 50 real ones that I could call good friends and 50,000 or 60,000 others out there on 18 that were kind of rooting me home. So there's no question, when you're playing well, you're feeding off the crowds.
Q: You were an all-conference basketball player in high school. Still got any game?
A: No, I wish I could say I did, but I was "no defense." I'd sit out behind the 3-point line and every now and then knock one down. I was the shooter on the team. But for me, it was a great chance to do something different to take my mind off golf. You know, those were some of the best times of my life, being out there. We were No. 1 in the state of Connecticut my senior year [at Fairfield High School]; we lost in the state tournament. We'd sell out the gym. It was crazy. Every Friday night, all the cheerleaders and all the fans, it was cool. It was neat stuff.
Q: Back in high school, if someone could have said, "You can be a PGA Tour player someday or an NBA player someday," which would you have taken?
A: Well, I'd have to say there's no question. I'm living the dream, I love what I do and I wouldn't trade what I do for the world.
Q: If you could swat the shot of any fellow PGA Tour player, who would it be?
A: [Laughs] Tiger! Come on! I mean, he's the man to beat, both on and off the golf course. Everything he does, he does well, so absolutely. He's been swatting everybody for so long on the golf course. Someone needs to swat him back a little bit, right?
Q: Speaking of Tiger, you played against him in college, got to know him even better as a Ryder Cup teammate last fall and lost to him at the Match Play earlier this year. Tell me something about him that most of the general public doesn't know.
A: Well, he's just like everybody else. I mean, obviously, he's a tremendous talent and arguably the greatest player to ever play, but you know what? He's a fun guy to be around. He likes to have a good time, he's a family guy. People think that because he does something so well and he's such a recognizable figure that he's just surreal. And in a lot of ways he is on the golf course, because what he does is just tremendous, but he's just a fun person to be around and it's been a pleasure to get to know him.
Q: Complete this sentence: Tiger Woods will break Jack Nicklaus' all-time major record in ________.
A: Wow. I'd say in 2012. It never seems to amaze. [Woods' victory at the Wachovia Championship on Sunday] is a perfect example. He's one off the lead and he goes out and shoots 5-under on the front nine on a difficult golf course -- the wind is blowing 25 mph -- it's just incredible. You don't like to leaderboard-watch, but when he's up there, it's amazing what he does. Like I joke, the better Tiger is, the better it is for everybody else. It's a neat spot to be in, to be able to play against the best player that ever played is something pretty cool. It's something you'll tell your grandkids about.
Q: Do you think the tour needs Tiger more than Tiger needs the tour?
A: Well, I think it's kind of a two-way street in a lot of ways. As a player, what Tiger has done for the tour, the sponsorship and the people he's brought, the money we play for -- all of that has to do with the fact that he's done so well and he's brought a lot of people to the game. But at the same time, the PGA Tour is arguably the greatest organization in professional sports, what they do, what they give back to charity, how the athletes represent themselves. It's a great niche. You need each other to survive, there's no doubt about that.
Q: The Players Championship is this week. Going to feel weird being at TPC-Sawgrass in May instead of March?
A: Yes and no. I think the guys are really looking forward to it. I think the golf course is going to play more firm and fast. The weather, knock on wood, should be better. It's going to be a tough test. It's amazing, it seems like every course we've played this year has been tough. We haven't had any layups recently. I didn't play out West at the [Bob] Hope [Classic], but they had some crazy weather out there. Seems like everywhere we've played this year has been tough. [The Players] is no different. It'll be survival of the fittest, for sure.
Q: What are your thoughts on courses playing tougher and winning scores being closer to par?
A: Well, I think [the Wachovia] was perfect. I mean, 13-under wins the event. You know, as a fan, I think you want to see birdies, for the most part. At the Masters this year, Fuzzy [Zoeller] made a great comment. He said you're used to hearing roars around Amen Corner, but it sounded like a morgue out there. Obviously, the conditions and the weather got so tough that guys weren't making eagles and funneling into some of the pins until Sunday. And no disrespect, it was more the weather and the scenario -- it was cold and the golf course really got fast and firm. Which is great. I mean, it was a hard test, it was a fair test. But as a fan, I like to watch birdies. I don't like to see guys struggling. At the same time, you don't want to make it where it's just a shootout, either. I think that anywhere from 10 to 14 under par is a great winning score, in my opinion.
Q: That said, Stephen Ames' winning score at the Players was 14-under last year. Want to take a guess at this year's winning score?
A: Well, without seeing the golf course, it's hard to say, but from what I've heard, it could be -- again, depending on the weather -- it could be in the single digits to low single digits, for sure. Again, I haven't seen the course, but if it's as firm as people are saying, anything under par could be a good score.
Q: You're starting to get into some course design work with D.A. Weibring at TPC-Las Colinas.
A: Yeah, I'm excited about that. Living in Fort Worth now and having a lot of ties to the area, it's a neat opportunity for me. D.A. Weibring's a great guy and I was honored to be asked to become a part of it. More importantly, with Byron Nelson's name attached to the tournament, he's someone that I've always looked up to and respected and had a chance to meet. Everyone always talks about your dream foursome and Byron is always at the top of the list for what he meant, not just to the game of golf, but how he represented himself as a person and the things he did for the game of golf and his community were just bar none. Anyway I can help, I mean, I'd play golf in a hayfield if Byron Nelson's name was attached to it. And that being said, if there's any way I can help make the course better and make the tournament better with Byron's name attached, I'm honored to do it.
Q: I want to get your thoughts on a few issues. At the Nelson a few weeks ago, Phil Mickelson missed his pro-am time due to inclement weather, but was still allowed to play in the tournament. Did you agree with that decision?
A: Well, that's a tough one. Obviously, there's been a lot of talk about it. A rule is a rule, in my opinion. Whether it was tweaked a little bit, I'm not to say, but the tour took a stance on it and we have to live with what they said. I think it's a gray area. More importantly, I think the tour really needs to take a stance and say, 'Look, it's too gray right now. We need to make it more black-and-white.'
Q: The PGA Tour currently mandates players to compete in a minimum of 15 events per year. Should this number be more?
A: You know, with the World Golf events and different things, I could possibly see it going to 18. Fifteen might be a little low. I play 28 events, so I can't speak for other guys, but with World Golf events and majors right now, that's already seven of 'em. I don't think 18 is too much to ask.
Q: One idea that I know a lot of fans would advocate is to take a page from the LPGA, which requires its players to compete in each tournament once every four years. Would you be in favor of this on the PGA Tour? Think it could ever happen?
A: It's been talked about. I've been on the Player Advisory Council for a number of years and the tour in a lot of ways tries to do that in how our retirement plans are set up. You're fully vested in certain situations if you do play an event every four years. So that being said, there are some steps in there that have been implemented to get guys to do that. Whether they do that or not, I guess, is up to them. I think it's important that with golf being such a global game, being important in all different areas of the country and with different charities involved, I think it would be great if guys could come every four years and play. There's no doubt about it.
Q: J.J. Henry, you're off the Hot Seat.
A: Appreciate it, man.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com