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.
“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.