News & Opinion

Henderson seeks her destiny in Women’s PGA

A few years back, when Hershey closed its chocolate factory in the tiny eastern Ontario town of Smiths Falls, a lot of sweetness disappeared along with about 600 jobs.

Although the jobs may never return, some of that sweetness has come back, thanks to hometown heroine Brooke Henderson.

Don’t be misled. There’s nothing syrupy about this precocious 19-year-old. She’s a sugar-coated steel ball bearing. 

In two years on the LPGA tour, she has won four times, including the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, a title that she will defend this week at Olympia Fields Country Club, just south of Chicago (tee times: http://bit.ly/2sKnPBy).

Not much taller than her 48-inch driver, Henderson is coming off her first win of the season, the Meijer LPGA Classic, two weeks ago. That boosted her winnings this year to almost $600,000 and a career total of more than $2.4 million.

But with only one repeat winner in the 17 LPGA tournaments this season, her chances of becoming the year’s second two-time winner – and in a major championship, at that – may appear daunting to most. Not to Henderson.

“The fact that there are so many different winners this year just shows how strong the women’s game is right now,” she said in a recent conference call. “It makes our game even more exciting.”

But is that parity a good thing, or does the LPGA need a dominant force to generate more interest, much like Annika Sorenstam did in the 1990s and early 2000s?

Now the confection evaporates and the steely resolve reveals itself.

“It presents a great opportunity for someone to step up and take over that dominant role,” Henderson said, “and that could be me.”

It could be, for sure. But to don that mantle, Henderson, No. 12 in the Rolex Rankings, must face formidable opponents such as top-ranked So Yeon Ryu, No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn, No. 3 Lydia Ko and No. 4 Lexi Thompson, and others.

Henderson thinks she has found the key after a start to the season when her excellent ball-striking was hamstrung by so-so putting.

Her opening-round 63 at the Meijer gave her a huge confidence boost. “To have six birdies and an eagle, that got me going,” she said. “I was trusting all of my shots, especially my putting, and that changed the momentum for me.”

Henderson and older sister/caddie Brittany played Olympia Fields a few weeks ago, touring it with a local caddie who advised them on the best lines off the tee and approaches to the green.

Olympia Fields is a traditional, tree-lined course, not unlike Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Wash., where Henderson won her first major championship a year ago.

It’s also not dissimilar to Smiths Falls Golf and Country Club, where she learned the game under the guidance of her father, Dave, who remains her coach. (As a member of Team Canada, she learned much under the tutelage of national team coach Tristan Mullally.)

Olympia Fields also resembles Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club, not far from Smiths Falls, where in late August Henderson will try to become the first Canadian to win her country’s national women’s Open since Jocelyn Bourassa in 1973. You could say it’s her personal major.

By that time, will she be on the road to becoming this generation’s Sorenstam?

The answer to that is tough. 

But so is Brooke Henderson.

John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email:  gordongolf@outlook.com;  Twitter: @gordongolf