CROMWELL — For the last two decades, he has been the primary standard-bearer for our state. He calls it “carrying the flag” and for J.J. Henry, it’s not just a statement, it’s a responsibility.

He grew up in Fairfield, first learning the game by hitting golf balls in his parents’ backyard before playing as an amateur in his very first professional event — the 1998 Canon Greater Hartford Open — with his father, Ron, working the bag.

Twenty years later, Henry is a three-time PGA Tour winner, was a member of the 2006 Ryder Cup team, and not too long ago, became just the 13th active Tour member to play in 500 PGA Tournaments.

“That’s crazy … hard to believe,” said Henry, whose 2018 Travelers at TPC River Highlands marked his 517th career start. “First, you have to stay healthy and you have to play pretty darn consistent golf for 18 years. Could I have done this or done that? Maybe, but I’ve been able to stay exempt out here for 18 straight years and that’s a humbling feat in itself, especially when I’m not getting any younger.”

Coming into his 20th Travelers, Henry was looking for a kick-start to a season that has had its shares of ups and downs. There was a T23 at the Farmers Insurance Open in January, followed by four missed cuts over his next six events. Then, came a T16 at the RBC Heritage, a T10 at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and a decent T67 at the Players Championship.

Followed by three straight missed cuts.

“I missed the last three cuts by a shot (each), so the difference between playing on the weekend and giving yourself a chance is so close …” Henry said. “It’s kind of frustrating because the putter has been letting me down. I putted well today and I have to keep plugging at it.”

Starting on the back nine, Henry knocked in a five-footer at the par-5 13th for a birdie to get to 1-under and then banged home a 45-foot birdie on 18 to go to 2-under at the turn. An 18-footer for birdie at No. 2 moved him to 3-under, getting him to the first page of the leaderboard until a bogey at the par-3 fifth left him tied for 23rd after the morning wave. Henry finished the round in a tie for 37th.

“You know, it’s the same old deal, when I putt well … I’ve just been struggling with my putter,” he said. “I had some chances, but all in all, a solid couple-under-par round and see if I can put together another good three days.”

His parents, Ron and Nancy, were at the TPC on Thursday, watching their son. Both have been battling recent health issues, Ron fighting Parkinson’s and Nancy undergoing treatment for cancer.

“Unfortunately, my parents’ health has not been good, so it means a lot to them, and to me, to have them out here,” Henry said.

He is currently on the cusp of the FedEx Cup playoffs, standing 141st on the list. The top 125 make the four-tournament FedEx field, starting at the Northern Trust on Aug. 23.

“I’m excited. I’m going to play a lot in the next couple of months and see if we can keep going,” Henry said. “The bottom line is, I still hit the ball and can play good enough every week, but they don’t reward you for getting it close; you have to put the ball in the hole. That’s been a little frustrating.”

celsberry@ctpost.com