Hometown and hockey shape LPGA winner Henderson

By Randall MellNovember 17, 2015, 9:15 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – Brooke Henderson is attacking the zone again, looking to light the lamp.

These are hockey terms that could describe Henderson’s return to the LPGA this week for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, fitting metaphors in how this former Canadian junior hockey player is using her own special experiences to find an edge in the golf world.

Henderson tees it up at Tiburon Golf Club looking to continue to press the action in a bid to join Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson as the most formidable young players in the women’s game.

“I have a lot of big dreams and big goals that I’m not even close to yet,” Henderson told GolfChannel.com. “I have to work really hard to get better. This year was a steppingstone in the right direction.”

A remarkable steppingstone.

While Ko and Inbee Park deservedly dominate the storylines in Naples this week, Henderson will make her final start this season relishing the chance to put the finishing touch on her highly successful journey to LPGA membership.

“What Brooke did this year, nobody could really comprehend,” said Dave Henderson, Brooke’s father. “She hears this all time: ‘How did you do it? It seems like an impossible thing, and you did it.’”

Henderson won the Cambia Portland Classic in an eight-shot runaway as a 17-year-old in August, becoming the third youngest winner in LPGA history. The victory allowed her to claim LPGA membership with commissioner Mike Whan waiving the tour’s rule requiring members to be at least 18 years old.

The victory was just part of Henderson’s daunting journey.

This wasn’t a free-wheeling teenage amateur with nothing to lose running up the score in Portland. This was a fledgling pro performing admirably under the pressure of spending this entire year trying to earn LPGA membership the hard way. She did just that through limited sponsor exemptions and Monday qualifying after she was denied a waiver of the tour’s age restriction in an attempt to earn a tour card at LPGA Q-School last year.

“At the beginning of this year, I knew there was a long road ahead of me,” Henderson said.

Really, looking back, Dave Henderson sees junior hockey’s demanding disciplines and Brooke’s big sister as instrumental in preparing the way to this year’s success. Brooke emerged from the hockey-centric small town of Smiths Falls, Ontario, with special tools and a special guide in her sister, Brittany.

The attacking zone metaphor above doesn’t actually work for Brooke, Dave will tell you, because Brooke was a goaltender, just like Dave, though Dave didn’t really want her to play when the local peewee team in Smiths Falls came calling.

Brooke’s mom, Darlene, was the one who signed Brooke up to play. Brooke was just 8.

“I wasn’t keen on her playing,” Dave said. “I thought girls looked better with teeth.”

Dave was the goalie at the University of Toronto, where he played for Mike Keenan in the ‘70s. That’s “Iron Mike” Keenan, who went on to coach a number of NHL teams, including the Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers in 1994. Dave went on to play for the Junior A Nepean Raiders and the Ottawa 67s.

Hockey’s a tough sport, especially when you’re a goaltender. It takes a certain physical and mental toughness to defend the net.

Imagining Brooke in goal might seem a jarring proposition for fellow LPGA pros. With her blonde hair, striking blue eyes and soft voice, Henderson carries herself with a disarmingly sweet and gentle disposition. That’s not how she carried herself in goal, though.

“I got angry when someone threw one by me,” Henderson said.

That didn’t happen very often, though. Brooke quickly became a very good goaltender for the Smiths Falls Cubs, helping her team win a provincial championship. She played hockey until she made Golf Canada’s national women’s team as a 14-year-old, but hockey’s still a big part of her competitive DNA.

“I don’t want to say Smiths Falls is stupid over hockey, but we really love our hockey,” Dave said.

Though Smiths Falls is a town of just 8,978 residents in eastern Ontario, it is home to three hockey rinks, including the new Gerry Lowe Memorial Rink of Dreams. Dave was a school teacher in Smiths Falls and Darlene worked for the county.

“The rinks hold the community together,” Dave said.

As a goalie, Brooke’s body changed. Wearing all that protective padding, squatting in goal for long durations, sometimes in multiple weekend games in big tournaments, her legs grew strong. Even when she was playing golf in the summer, she was preparing for hockey. Paul Vaillancourt, the head pro at Smiths Falls Golf & Country Club when Brooke was growing up, remembers her standing behind the clubhouse and whipping tennis balls at the wall, training her reflexes by catching rebounding balls.

“She worked on her form, her footwork, being square, catching these balls barehanded in drills Dave gave her,” Vaillancourt said.

Dave says the leg strength Brooke developed, the fast-twitch muscle she trained defending shots on goal, are large reasons she is such a long driver of the golf ball today. Brooke has good hands, too, a significant reason her short game is so good. Brad Beecher, Park’s caddie, watched Brooke in their pairing together at the KPMG Womens’ PGA Championship in June. While he knew Henderson was a long hitter, he marveled over the maturation of her short game. It’s something he said allows her to play so aggressively hitting irons into tough hole locations.

There’s something else hockey did for Henderson. It toughened her up. She took more than one jarring shot off her facemask in her junior career.

What’s that like?

“You’re just glad you stopped it, that it didn’t go in the net,” Henderson said. “You learn something getting hit in the face. You learn to get your hands up quicker.”

A shot off the face, Henderson says, isn’t nearly as painful as the feeling that you let your team down allowing a goal.

“You have to be a little different to be a goalie,” Henderson said. “You’re either the hero or you’re not. You learn a lot being in that position, and it’s something that applies to golf. You let a goal in, you’re angry, but you have to let it go and get your focus back or you’re going to let another goal in.

“It’s the same thing in golf. Bad things happen, but you have to hang in there and keep fighting.”

Smiths Falls admires that about Brooke. She is beloved there. So is her older sister, Brittany, who also was a standout on the Canadian national golf team. Brittany, six years older than Brooke, went on to play at Coastal Carolina University and now plays the Symetra Tour.

“There are about five roads that lead into Smiths Falls, and at every one there’s a sign that says ‘Welcome to Smiths Falls, home of Brooke and Brittany Henderson,’” Vaillancourt said. “There’s just a huge amount of community pride.”

Whether you’re getting your morning coffee at Tim Horton’s or the Coffee Culture in Smiths Falls, you’re going to hear conversations about Brooke’s performance, says Smiths Falls mayor Shawn Pankow.


Brooke Henderson poses after winning the Portland Classic, her first LPGA victory. (Getty)

“I was in Niagara Falls the morning after Brooke won in Portland,” Pankow said. “I was up early, and there on a newsstand I see Brooke’s face on the front of our Canadian national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. I have that in my office now.”

Henderson was the first Canadian woman to win an LPGA event in 14 years, since Lorie Kane won the Takefuji Classic in 2001. Pankow says he isn’t a huge golf fan, but he has the LPGA app on his mobile phone now just to follow Henderson. He isn’t alone in Smiths Falls.

“I think everyone in town must follow her on Facebook,” Pankow said.

Smiths Falls has endured some hard times in recent years. The town was known as “The Chocolate Capital of Canada” until the big Hershey plant there closed seven years ago. A lot of jobs were lost, and so was the commerce the factory brought.

“I used to love the smell of chocolate in the air as a little girl,” Brooke said. “I think it’s why I have a sweet tooth today.”

A large regional hospital for the developmentally disabled in Smiths Falls closed a couple years after the Hershey factory boarded up.

“We’ve had our challenges,” Pankow said. “We’re working on rebranding who we are and what we will be in the future. There have been negative stories to overcome, but certainly what’s happening with Brooke and Brittany is one of the most positive stories our community’s enjoyed in a number of years.”

Brittany, who often caddies for Brooke, says a part of Smiths Falls follows them wherever they go.

“It’s special having that support, having everyone rally together, supporting you,” Brittany said. “It’s really helped Brooke and me get where we are. It’s motivation knowing they’re with us. It keeps you going.”

While Brittany is still chasing her dream trying to join Brooke as an LPGA member, Dave and Darlene see how Brooke became successful chasing her older sister. Brooke wasn’t pushed into the game so much as she was pulled along trying to keep up with her sister.


Brittany Henderson caddies for sister Brooke at this year's KPMG Women's PGA (Getty)

Canadian women’s national team coach Tristan Mullally saw it, too.

“Brooke didn’t really look at the other players around her and compare herself to them, she looked at her sister,” Mullally said. “Her sister was always her measuring stick.”

When your sister is a Golf Canada standout, and you’re six years younger than she is, that’s a daunting standard.

“Brooke set her sights far above the level of the girls she was playing against, and that helped her reach another level,” Mullally said. “They’re pretty much inseparable. I don’t think I’ve ever heard them say a cross word to each other. They’ve always got each other’s backs.”

That helped Brooke become a teen phenom. It helped her become the youngest player to win a professional event, taking a Canadian Women’s Tour event when she was 14. It helped her tie for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open as a 16-year-old and finish runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Amateur last year and then rise to the No. 1 women’s amateur in the world.

Brittany is caddying for Brooke this week, but it’s a testament to their bond that Brooke spent the last month of the Symetra Tour season caddying for Brittany. With the LPGA off on the Asian swing and Brooke not eligible to play, Brooke went to work for her sister.

“She made me carry her big bag the last two weeks,” Brooke joked. “It’s huge, pretty heavy, but I had fun.”

Brittany appreciated having Brooke on her bag just a couple months after Brooke won in Portland.

“It meant a lot to me,” Brittany said. “I think she appreciated me giving up some Symetra Tour events to caddie for her. Brooke’s my best friend, and I think we both appreciate the sacrifices we make for each other.”

Brooke likes having Brittany at her side again this week.

“She’s my best friend,” Brooke said. “Even though she’s older, a lot of people think we’re twins. It’s not just the way we look, but the way we act.”

Smiths Falls will be rooting for the Henderson sisters to make them proud again this week.

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.

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Tour's Integrity Program raises gambling questions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 17, 2018, 7:00 pm

The video begins with an eye-opening disclaimer: “Sport betting markets produce revenues of $1 trillion each year.”

For all the seemingly elementary elements of the 15-minute video PGA Tour players have been required to watch as part of the circuit’s newly created Integrity Program, it’s the enormity of the industry – $1 trillion annually – that concerns officials.

There are no glaring examples of how sport betting has impacted golf, no red flags that sent Tour officials into damage control; just a realization that with that kind of money it’s best to be proactive.

“It's important that in that world, you can operate not understanding what's happening week in and week out, or you can assume that all of our players and everybody in our ecosystem understands that that's not an acceptable activity, or you can just be proactive and clarify and educate,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan explained earlier this month. “That's what we have attempted to do not with just the video, but with all of our communication with our players and will continue to do that.”

But if clarification is the goal, a copy of the training video obtained by GolfChannel.com paints a different picture.

Although the essence of the policy is straightforward – “prohibit players from betting on professional golf” – the primary concern, at least if the training video is any indication, is on match fixing; and warns players to avoid divulging what is considered “inside information.”

“I thought the questions were laughable. They were all like first-grade-level questions,” Chez Reavie said. “I would like to think everyone out here already knows the answer to those questions. But the Tour has to protect themselves.”

Monahan explained that the creation of the integrity policy was not in reaction to a specific incident and every player asked last week at the Sony Open said they had never encountered any type of match fixing.

“No, not at all,” Reavie said. “I have friends who will text me from home after a round, ‘Oh, I bet on you playing so-and-so.’ But I make it clear I don’t want to know. I don’t gamble like that. No one has ever approached me about losing a match.”

It was a common answer, but the majority of the video focuses on how players can avoid being placed in a compromising situation that could lead to match fixing. It should be noted that gamblers can place wagers on head-to-head matchups, provided by betting outlets, during stroke-play rounds of tournaments – not just in match-play competitions.

Part of the training video included questions players must answer to avoid violating the policy. An example of this was how a player should respond when asked, “Hello, buddy! Well played today. I was following your progress. I noticed your partner pulled out of his approach on 18, looked like his back. Is he okay for tomorrow?”

The correct answer from a list of options was, “I don’t know, sorry. I’m sure he will get it looked at if it’s bothering him.”

You get the idea, but for some players the training created more questions.

How, for example, should a player respond when asked how he’s feeling by a fan?

“The part I don’t understand, let’s say a member of your club comes out and watches you on the range hitting balls, he knows you’re struggling, and he bets against you. Somehow, some way that could come back to you, according to what I saw on that video,” said one player who asked not to be identified.

Exactly what constitutes a violation is still unclear for some who took the training, which was even more concerning considering the penalties for a violation of the policy.

The first violation is a warning and a second infraction will require the player to retake the training program, but a third violation is a fine “up to $500,000” or “the amount illegally received from the betting activity.” A sixth violation is a lifetime ban from the Tour.

Players are advised to be mindful of what they post on social media and to “refrain from talking about odds or betting activity.” The latter could be an issue considering how often players discuss betting on other sports.

Just last week at the Sony Open, Kevin Kisner and Justin Thomas had a “friendly” wager on the College Football Playoff National Championship. Kisner, a Georgia fan, lost the wager and had to wear an Alabama football jersey while playing the 17th hole last Thursday.

“If I'd have got the points, he'd have been wearing [the jersey], and I was lobbying for the points the whole week, and he didn't give them to me,” Kisner said. “So I'm still not sure about this bet.”

It’s unclear to some if Kisner’s remark, which was a joke and didn’t have anything to do with golf, would be considered a violation. From a common sense standpoint, Kisner did nothing wrong, but the uncertainty is an issue.

Much like drug testing, which the Tour introduced in 2008, few, if any, think sport betting is an issue in golf; but also like the anti-doping program, there appears to be the danger of an inadvertent and entirely innocent violation.

The Tour is trying to be proactive and the circuit has a trillion reasons to get out in front of what could become an issue, but if the initial reaction to the training video is any indication they may want to try a second take.

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Lexi looks to shine as LPGA season begins next week

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 6:06 pm

Lexi Thompson may be No. 4 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, but in so many ways she became the new face of the women’s game last year.

That makes her the headliner in a fairly star-studded season opener at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic next week.

Three of the top four players in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings are scheduled to tee it up on Paradise Island, including world No. 1 Shanshan Feng and co-Rolex Player of the Year So Yeon Ryu.

From the heartache at year’s start with the controversial loss at the ANA Inspiration, through the angst in the middle of the year with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, to the stunning disappointment at year’s end, Thompson emerged as the story of the year because of all she achieved in spite of those ordeals.

Next week’s event will mark the first time Thompson tees it up in an LPGA tournament since her season ended in stunning fashion last November with a missed 2-foot putt that cost her a chance to win the CME Group Tour Championship and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and become the world No. 1.

She still walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for the season’s low scoring average.

She also walked away sounding determined to show she will bounce back from that last disappointment the same way she bounced back from her gut-wrenching loss at the year’s first major, the ANA, where a four-shot Sunday penalty cost her a chance to win her second major.

“Just going through what I have this whole year, and seeing how strong I am, and how I got through it all and still won two tournaments, got six seconds ... it didn’t stop me,” Thompson said leaving the CME Group Tour Championship. “This won’t either.”

Thompson was named the Golf Writers Association of America’s Player of the Year in a vote of GWAA membership. Ryu and Sung Hyun Park won the tour’s points-based Rolex Player of the Year Award.

With those two victories and six second-place finishes, three of those coming after playoff losses, Thompson was close to fashioning a spectacular year in 2017, to dominating the tour.

The new season opens with Thompson the center of attention again. Consistently one of the tour’s best ball strikers and longest hitters, she enjoyed her best year on tour last season by making dramatic improvements in her wedge play, short game and, most notably, her putting.

She doesn’t have a swing coach. She fashioned a better all-around game on her own, or under the watchful eye of her father, Scott. All the work she put in showed up in her winning the Vare Trophy.

The Pure Silk Bahamas Classic will also feature defending champion Brittany Lincicome, as well as Ariya Jutanugarn, Stacy Lewis, Michelle Wie, Brooke Henderson, I.K. Kim, Danielle Kang and Charley Hull.