All week, thick crowds have been following Brooke Henderson around Magna Golf Club to watch her title defence at the CP Women’s Open.
As fans steady their phones at her and holler ‘Go get ‘em Brooke’ on every hole, the Canadian star politely acknowledges the encouragement with a small tip of her hand. She chokes down on her extra-long driver and lets the ball rip far and straight. Gasps of admiration echo from the gallery. They whoop proudly at her every birdie putt.
An equipment retailer constructed a Brooke’s Brigade viewing zone, where kids scoop up free red Brooke T-shirts. Her photo is on all the posters, media guides and credentials. She is routinely met by large media scrums.
Huge packs of autograph-seekers, from retirees to kids wearing her well-recognized Ping visor, surround the fence past the 18th green after her rounds. Henderson spends 20 minutes scribbling and posing for photos before she is ushered off to the clubhouse.
In five years, Henderson has gone from teenage phenom and world-topping amateur to a 21-year-old LPGA star with nine titles to her name. The native of Smiths Falls, Ont., has already won a major and become Canada’s most winning pro golfer in history. Her victory in Regina last year ended a 45-year stretch without a Canadian champion at the national women’s open. Now, with the spotlight focused squarely on her in Aurora, Ont., she takes aim at something no one from Canada has done at this tournament: repeat.
“Doing media days and being around the tournament, I had been around the trophy a lot and always wanted to touch it or pick it up, but I had never done it because I told myself I would earn it,” Henderson said. “But the thing is, once you win a tournament, you really only get to spend maybe an hour with the trophy and then they take it away. But you get a replica, and that’s on my trophy shelf.”
When she played in her first Canadian Women’s Open as a 14-year-old amateur, her coach and father, Dave Henderson, captured a photo of the large silver tournament trophy when it was on display by the front gates of the Vancouver Golf Club. He got up close and wrapped his arm behind it, but he was careful not to touch it.
“Kind of like the Stanley Cup – we know hockey players never touch it until they win it,” recalled her dad in Aurora this week, watching from the back of the media tent as his daughter met the press. “We had the photo blown up and put right on the bedroom door, so you couldn’t really miss it. It’s there subtly with lots of other good memories and inspirational quotes and scores. She passed it every day when she was home over the following years. I think it was motivational.”
He said another trophy they have set as a goal is the Vare Trophy, awarded to the LPGA player with the lowest scoring average of the season. Henderson is currently fifth on Tour in that category (69.742).
“If you focus on that, all of your skills have to be good,” said her dad.
Henderson is flanked by her close-knit circle this week in Aurora – including her sister Brittany on her bag, her parents, her agent from IMG, and her long-time contact at Ping, the club manufacturer.
Wednesday afternoon, the company received a last-minute request from Henderson for a new club – a 4-iron she wanted to add to her arsenal just in case she might need it. Ping quickly customized one for her in Oakville and hand-delivered it to her on the range at Magna Golf Club by 7 a.m. – an hour before she began Thursday’s opening round.
“As soon as you mention Brooke’s name at Ping – in Canada or the U.S. – we jump,” said Dave Wilson, general manager of Ping Canada, who has known the family since Henderson’s early teens, and often walks the course with them when she plays.
He had lunch with the Hendersons after she shot an exciting six-under 66 opening round on Thursday at Magna to sit – at least for a while – atop the leaderboard.
“We didn’t even talk about golf. It was like fist bump, ‘good round’,” said Wilson, to articulate Henderson’s poised tone. “She’s humble, she’s kind to everyone, and you’ll never see her getting ahead of herself after a round.”
It reminded him of the breakfast they all had before her Sunday round in Regina last summer. The preparation had been done, the confidence was there. They didn’t talk at all about the championship she could win that day. In fact, they talked about a TV show he had just watched about whales.
“Dave and Britt and Brooke do so much work ahead of time. Then on the course, Britt and Brooke are so good at quickly processing humidity, lie, wind direction, speed – they make a very unique team,” Wilson said. “You’re only allowed one, two bad swings per round at this level. You can’t play with reckless abandon. She is very aggressive off the tee because her ball striking is so good. Brooke can do whatever she wants with her driver, and that’s such a gift.”
On top of improved skill, Henderson has also become seasoned at managing her obligations.
The bulk of her appearances on behalf of the tournament were in early July. There was a news conference inside Magna’s opulent clubhouse, which kicked off with the viewing of a powerful LPGA ad. Henderson was featured prominently among the Tour stars in the ad, over messages “this is for every girl who was told success and kindness are two different things” and “this is us crushing it for you, so you can crush it for the next girl.”
That was followed by an afternoon jam-packed with one-on-one interviews. Then came a late-day meet-and-greet at Aurora’s GolfTown, where a long line of fans snaked through store aisles amid the vibrant golf polos, skorts, clubs, and leather bags, awaiting their chance to stand next to her.
Everything that comes with being a golf star comes more naturally to her now.
“You know what airlines are best to fly into that city, what hotels you like, you understand the golf courses a little better,” Henderson said.
“Being able to say no and learn to time manage is key. I have to understand that I need proper time to rest and to practice, so I think time management has been one of the most important things I’ve learned. I’m a much more confident player and person now.”
On Friday, Henderson shot a second-round three-under 69 and is right in the CP Women’s Open fight, in a tie for third, three back of leader Nicole Broch Larsen.
Henderson has won two titles a season for four successive years. In her LPGA career, she has already made US$5.9-million in prize money. This season, she has made US$1.14-million, placing her No. 5 on the money list. There is lots more available.
The CP Women’s Open has a purse of US$2.25-million with the winner getting a US$337,500 cheque. She is No. 5 in the CME Race to the Globe standings – a season-long tally of points that decides the Top 60 to play in the CME Group Tour Championship, which has a US$5-million purse and the US$1.5-million winner’s cheque, the largest single prize in the history of women’s golf.
Henderson can remember rubbing shoulders with Canadian golfers Alena Sharpe and Lorie Kane in her first CP Women’s Open. Now she’s the veteran player inspiring the young ones – meeting 12-year-old Canadian amateur Michelle Liu on the driving range this week ahead of her first one.
Magna’s wide fairways suit Henderson’s strengths, so it’s easy to imagine the Canadian could repeat as champion this weekend. It’s never easy to be the very best in a field of 156 golfers – especially with 99 of the LPGA’s Top 100-ranked golfers in Aurora.
“Knowing I was capable of winning this event after having done it last year I just think gave me a lot of confidence, made me more comfortable in front of these crowds,” Henderson said.
The crowds will only get bigger on the weekend.