Brooke Henderson drives through her first tee shot of the day with a commanding ping, and those looking on whoop and utter their amazement. This poised heavy-hitter is only 16 years old.
The teen from Smiths Falls, Ont., is the No. 2 amateur female golfer in the world, hardly a favourite at this week’s Canadian Pacific Women’s Open alongside seasoned LPGA pros. Yet with stellar results at the recent U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Women’s Open, the youngster now really draws a crowd. She has verbally committed to play at the University of Florida in 2015, yet she could leap to the LPGA sooner. She’s Canada’s most promising female golfer and a likely headliner for the country when golf debuts at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.
She’s been compared to rising Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard because of her success at such a young age and poise beyond her years. No doubt, the likeness is also drawn in part due to Henderson’s glowing smile, blue eyes and blond braided ponytail. But the young golfer could also be paralleled with Canadian NBA draft pick Tyler Ennis, who was raised in a basketball-loving house, a little boy playing on a Fisher Price hoop with his older brothers and father long before thriving as the Syracuse point guard at just 19. Like Bouchard and Ennis, Henderson fell in love with her sport early and went all in.
Henderson’s first brushes with golf came when she was about four, watching sister, Brittany – six years her senior – play in local tournaments.
“I wanted to be just like her,” Henderson said. “She’d be swinging her club on the fairway, and I’d be picking up a stick in the woods trying to match her swing. I just loved it.”
Their father, Dave, taught the girls how to golf. The long-time schoolteacher also ran an after-school golf program called Junior Linksters, where Henderson would hack around on the end of the range while he taught.
Soon, the younger Henderson was winning golf tournaments, too. As her golf talent grew, so too did her ability as a hockey goalie, taking after her father, who had played net at the University of Toronto. She honed her skills at an indoor golf school in Smiths Falls all winter while also playing girls’ hockey.
“I can remember, when she was like 11 or 12, she would come into my golf school in the winter and she’d hit some balls, then sit down with a healthy snack, and get back up with a tennis ball and go throw it against the wall in the warehouse to work on her reflexes for goaltending,” said Paulin Vaillancourt, her coach at Smiths Falls Golf & Country Club. “Then she’d be right back to hitting golf balls. Her work ethic was always tremendous, and she and her sister always had incredible maturity.”
Her sister went off to play golf at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C. The younger Henderson would travel to watch the occasional tournament and sometimes visit her sister in the college dorms. She dreamed of playing college golf herself some day.
“Starting around 12 or 13, I started to feel I would love to have a career in the sport and make it to the LPGA, so I gave up playing hockey, which was tough,” Henderson said. “But being a goalie, I faced a lot of heat sometimes and it could be stressful, so I think that has helped me on the golf course, playing with big crowds, coming down the stretch and having to finish strong.”
Women’s national amateur team coach Tristan Mullally had heard about the youngster before he took over the job three years ago, but seeing her up close was something special.
“Her focus in that training environment was way higher than I had seen at that age,” said Mullally, who saw her at age 14. “To be that focused and in-tune with herself at that age is pretty unique.”
Today, Henderson can drive the ball in the 250-yard range, which puts her among the top 85 on the LPGA Tour.
“She swings more like a male golfer,” Vaillancourt said. “I used to have a club-head speed radar here at my golf school, and I used to try to get them to swing as fast as they could, get that club-head speed up. She gets her legs and hips right into it, and she hits it dead-straight. When she hits it, it just makes a different sound.”
She recently set a new championship scoring record on her way to victory at the PGA Women’s Championship of Canada, where she piled up 14 birdies and an eagle in the two-day event at Fire Rock Golf Club in Komoka, Ont. She was the runner up at the U.S Amateur Championship, and finished 10th at the U.S Women’s Open – the low amateur of the event.
In this, her third appearance in a Canadian Women’s Open, Henderson is in position to make the cut for the first time after shooting a one-under 71 on Friday. She scored a two-under 70 in Thursday’s first round, tying with Rebecca-Lee Bentham, Elizabeth Tong and Sara-Maude Juneau as the second-lowest from Canada.
As an amateur, Henderson doesn’t collect prize money when she plays LPGA Tour events, but she is currently the highest-ranked Canadian golfer in the Women’s World Golf Rankings at No. 199. Yet, the rising talent remains very humble. She returns to Smiths Falls to work for Vaillancourt, picking up golf balls, cleaning clubs or selling raffle tickets, even as many golfers there now ask for her autograph. After the Canadian Open, she will go caddy for her sister in Palm Springs, Calif., as she plays in the first stage of qualifying school for the LPGA Tour.
“This year, my goal was to get inside the top three, and I’ve been able to do that, so now I’m setting my sights on the No. 1 spot,” Henderson said. “When I think back, a year ago last January, I was the No. 32 amateur in the world and now I’m No. 2, so it’s been a great run and I want to continue it.”