Brooke Henderson LPGA Tour Team Canada

Henderson ready for her close-up playing at home

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(Golf Canada/ Bernard Brault)

LONDON, Ont. – At the age of 16, Brooke Henderson gets it.

The amateur from Smiths Falls, Ont., is well aware of the high expectations that come from finishing in the top 10 at a major tournament and emerging as the best young Canadian women’s golfers.

“I see the pressure and I hear it,” Henderson said. “I hear that I’m the face of Canadian golf, but I’m just trying to improve and trying to get better.”

Henderson doesn’t seem to be buying into the hype that she has created for herself. With Lorie Kane about to turn 50, she’s considered the future of the sport in Canada, even with Alena Sharp, Sue Kim, Jennifer Kirby and Rebecca Lee-Bentham already established on the LPGA Tour.

She goes into this week’s Canadian Pacific Women’s Open at London Hunt and Country Club with all that perspective to go with her experience. Henderson missed the cut the past two years in Edmonton and Vancouver and understands what it’s all about this time, playing about a seven-hour drive from where she grew up.

“Definitely there is pressure,” Henderson said. “But I’m excited to be able to play for my family and friends and show them what I can do. They’re out there cheering for me, and I know every shot they’re going to be happy either way.”

Henderson set her expectation at making the cut and then “hopefully climb up the leader board a little bit.” That’s a realistic goal two weeks after she finished second to Kristen Gillman at the U.S. Women’s Amateur.

But this is a different animal for Henderson as the home-country girl who’s blossoming into a star. On her way from the putting green to the driving range on Wednesday, several fans stopped her for autographs, photos and or just to chat.

When she tees off just before 8:30 a.m. for Thursday’s first round, Henderson will get to focus in on just golf. Her caddy, longtime family friend Bunk Lee, will do his part to keep Henderson focused.

“I think Brooke is very good at relaxing herself,” Lee said. “She’s been exposed to this enough, and she takes care of most of it. I’m just there for reassurance and making sure I’m doing my job as the caddy and trying to provide the best environment for her to perform in and it all takes care of itself.”

Kane recalled being overwhelmed at times during her first appearances at the Canadian Women’s Open – then called the du Maurier Classic – worried that she couldn’t live up to external expectations.

The four-time champion on the LPGA Tour said she has no doubt Henderson is prepared for the atmosphere she’s about to face and the future she’s embarking on.

“Brooke, she’s hard-working, very dedicated to what she does,” Kane said in a phone interview last week. “Brooke’s career can be what Brooke wants it to be. The sky’s the limit. She’s got a great head on her shoulders, she’s a very level-headed kid.”

That came across Wednesday in her pre-tournament news conference during which she fielded a handful of questions about her place in history and the hefty weight on her young shoulders. In the short-term – the next few days – Henderson expects to feel more comfortable now that she has gotten to know more professional colleagues and what to expect.

In the long term, Henderson doesn’t consider herself standing alone as Canada’s only hope in women’s golf.

“Definitely I think the game in Canada is growing, and there are some young pros coming up like Sue Kim, and Jennifer Kirby and Rebecca Lee-Bentham that are great players and have full status on the tour this year,” she said. “Maybe they haven’t played as well as they would have liked, but I think the future is bright for them.”

It could be even brighter for Henderson if she continues down her developmental path. Golf Canada’s Brent McLaughlin said just like with men’s golfer Mike Weir, Canadian fans “need to rally around heroes” and considers Henderson one of those.

“We’re so proud of Brooke. … Any time you see young talents just excel, you’re proud of them,” McLaughlin said on a conference call last week. “(Fans) need to have a reason to watch. … It makes kids want to be like them. We need that in our sport. We’ve very fortunate, very lucky and very proud.”

Henderson is one of 15 Canadians in the field this week, along with pros Kane, Sharp, Lee-Bentham, Kirby, Kim, Maude-Aimee LeBlanc, Sara-Maude Juneau, Samantha Richdale, Nicole Vandermade, Natalie Gleadall, Erica Rivard, Jessica Wallace and fellow amateurs Jennifer Ha and Elizabeth Tong.

No Canadian woman has won this tournament since Jocelyne Bourassa captured the title at the inaugural edition in 1973. For 22 years from 1979 through 2000 it was a major, and it still carries that importance to Henderson.

“It used to be a major back in the day, and to me it still is one,” she said. “It’s very close to home. It’s our national championship.”

New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, at 17 a two-time defending champion at Canada’s national championship, knows from experience that Henderson has had to repeatedly answer the question about when she’s turning pro. Henderson said Wednesday it’s still her plan to attend the University of Florida with the hope of having an LPGA Tour career in the future.

That means for now Henderson – a Team Canada member – is one of the faces of amateur women’s golf, something she has accepted.

“Of course there is a little bit of pressure, but I enjoy it,” Henderson said. “I love a challenge.”