MacGregor: Teen golfer on an upward trajectory
ROY MacGREGOR The Globe and Mail
Published on Thursday, May. 23, 2013 05:13PM EDT Last updated on Tuesday, Jun. 19, 2012 08:47AM EDT
SMITHS FALLS, ONT. - She has never left North America, yet she is standing on the 14th tee at Carnoustie.
It is bright and warm this Saturday morning in Eastern Ontario, but not in her head. There it is raining hard, the wind howling in off the North Sea and over the links of this famous Scottish golf course where Brooke Henderson, 14, will play in the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship next week. It will be her first competition since an astonishing record-breaking victory two weeks ago against the pros at the CN Canadian Women’s Tour event in Beloeil, Que.
And in August she will be off to Vancouver to play against the leading LPGA Tour professionals in the CN Canadian Women’s Open, where she will become the youngest to compete in the prestigious event’s history.
Local members who see Henderson on the practice tee of the Smiths Falls Golf and Country Club shout out her name and congratulations as they head toward the pro shop, and though she smiles and waves back to them she is not really there.
She needs a low, hard draw off this imaginary 14th tee at Carnoustie – one of hardest holes known in golf – and, having executed it perfectly into the imaginary wind, avoiding the out-of-bounds on the left, she knows her approach must somehow elude the massive bunkers that give this course its nickname, Carnasty.
She selects a club, picks out a spot far down the range, swings hard and follows through elegantly, the ball staying low but straight as it finds its way to within a gimmee of the spot where she had aimed.
“There is a tree in front of you,” head pro Paulin Vaillancourt tells the young prodigy, “and there’s a low branch you have to get under.”
The 14 year old nods, picks out a 3-wood, kicks a practice ball to where she has been striking shots for an hour (the grass barely shaven by her always precision ball striking) and she quietly drills a shot that is never more than two metres off the ground, the golf ball like a white laser as it heads for the tall grass at the end of the range.
“Did you miss the branch?” Vaillancourt asks.
“Maybe nipped it a little bit,” she says with a conviction that suggests pine needles are fluttering to the ground in front of her.
“She has uncanny accuracy,” says the head pro, now in his 23rd season at the Smiths Falls club. “She’s very determined. She hates to lose. She has the will to conquer a golf course.”
Such precociousness is rare but not unique in golf. American Michelle Wie turned professional at 15. Fellow LPGA Tour pro Lexi Thompson is 17 and already a winner on the top women’s circuit. And just this past weekend Andy Zhang, 14, and Beau Hossler, 17, competed in the men’s U.S. Open, Zhang missing the cut and Hossler brazenly predicting he could win after a remarkable third-round 70. (He faded to 76 on Sunday and finished tied for 29th place.)
Even so, Henderson’s preparation is remarkable for a 14 year old. She studies courses she has never but knows she will play. In her back pocket this sunny morning is a slim booklet on Carnoustie, with each hole described in detail, the details now being imprinted in her memory before she even boards the plane. She has been studying the Scottish course as diligently as she is cramming for the English and science exams that are mandatory, the top-of-the-class Grade 9 student having gained exemptions on all her other courses at Smiths Falls & District Collegiate Institute.
But it is her power, more so than her concentration, that has so astonished established pros who have played with her. She grew a couple of inches over the winter and at the same time added another 20 or 30 yards to her drives, now consistently in the 250-yard range, which would put her in the top 85 on the LPGA Tour. She thinks her leg power comes from years of playing goal in hockey – she plays midget, up a full age group – a position her father, Dave, played at University of Toronto. Dave and his brother, Tom, are both accomplished golfers at the Smiths Falls club.
Henderson, No. 91 in the women’s world amateur ranking, came up through the excellent junior golf program at the course, as did her older sister Brittany, winner of the 2012 Big South Women’s Golf Championship and a rising star on the Coastal Carolina college team. Brittany had accumulated some 90 individual championships before setting off for Carolina on a scholarship.
Brooke, on the other hand, has no idea how many tournaments she has won, and though as a member of the national amateur development team she is supposed to keep careful records of greens reached in regulation and putts taken, she keeps forgetting. Her focus is so in the now it is as if there is only the shot about to be taken, nothing behind and nothing ahead but the immediate challenge.
“Even at five years of age you could see that she was special,” Vaillancourt says. “Even on cold, rainy days when no one else would be out here she’d be here hitting balls. She has just an incredible work ethic.”
“I thought at first that whoever was first to get the ball in the hole won,” Henderson says. “Not fewest strokes.”
But she learned quickly – like older sister Brittany, she also excels academically – and was soon winning junior events and quickly challenging the best women golfers in the world, even the well-known professionals. If there were no golf in her future, she would want to be an elementary school teacher, but her dream is to win a college scholarship and then turn professional.
Her role model is Morgan Pressel, the Florida-based pro who in 2007 won the Kraft Nabisco Championship at 18 years 313 days, becoming the youngest woman in history to win a modern major tournament.
Asked what she saw in her own long-distant future, she doesn’t even back off from her next practice swing.
Not one, but “some.”
And what about the Olympics? In 2016 golf will make its return to the Summer Games. Could she see herself representing Canada there one day?
Not one day, but soon.
“In 2016,” she says, “I’ll be 18. Why not?”