DALY CITY, Calif. – The torch was blazing brilliantly when it was passed Friday at the Swinging Skirts Classic.
With Lydia Ko turning 18, Brooke Henderson is now the best 17-year-old in the world, taking over in dramatic style. With the fans in the grandstand behind Henderson singing “Happy Birthday” as Ko prepared to hit her first tee shot of the second round, Henderson was off in the group just ahead, ready to keep this youthful theme going in the women’s professional game.
Henderson may be trying to follow in Ko’s footsteps, but it was Henderson leaving smoking footprints for Ko to see.
Scorching Lake Merced Golf Club with a tournament-record 7-under-par 65, Henderson vaulted to the top of the leaderboard. At 9-under 135, Henderson is two shots ahead of Na Yeon Choi (68) and three ahead of Cindy Yueer Feng (68) and Sakura Yokomine (67).
Ko, the first-round leader, shot 72 and sits four behind Henderson.
“It was a lot of fun out there,” said Henderson, the Canadian phenom who turned pro in December after finishing runner up at the U.S. Women’s Amateur and tying for 10th as the low amateur at the U.S. Women’s Open. “I hit a lot of good shots, and I got very lucky, got some good bounces and was able to make some putts.”
Henderson eagled her fifth hole of the day, hitting 3-wood to 15 feet.
“It’s all there,” said Brooke Pancake, who played alongside Henderson. “She has every shot. Her short game was amazing today, and she made everything.”
Henderson has already won five professional events on mini-tours and developmental tours, three as an amateur. Though it was Ko watching Henderson play in front of her Friday, Henderson says she’s the one who has been keeping a close eye on Ko. Just six months younger than Ko, Henderson counts the Rolex No. 1 as her model to follow into the pro ranks.
“What she’s doing is pretty incredible, her journey pretty amazing,” Henderson said.
Henderson played in the same field with Ko at the U.S. Girls’ Junior Amateur at Lake Merced three years ago. Minjee Lee won it that year. All three are in the field as pros this week. Two years ago, Henderson played in the CN Canadian Women’s Open with Ko, when they were both still amateurs, with Ko winning the event for the second time. Henderson remembers being on the practice putting green when Ko arrived.
“She was practicing with her mother,” Henderson said. “I was supposed to be practicing, but I just stopped and watched her. She’s a huge role model, not only for me, but everyone.”
Henderson can become an LPGA member through Q-School qualifying later this year, but she is trying to win LPGA membership without going to Q-School. The quickest way would be to win this week. She could claim a two-year exemption to the tour by winning, but because she won’t turn 18 until October, she couldn’t claim that membership without the LPGA waiving its age restriction rule. She can also win membership through non-member equivalent winnings. If she ends this season with the equivalent of top 40 money winnings, she could claim membership for 2016. Only money earned in events with a cut count toward non-member winnings.
“It’s a great opportunity, so I’ve really got to be able to capitalize when I do get those opportunities,” Henderson said.
Without membership status, Henderson has been trying to earn her way into LPGA events through Monday qualifying and sponsor exemptions. She is limited to six sponsor exemptions, not including invitations to the U.S. Women’s Open and Ricoh Women’s British Open. She’s using the first of her six sponsor invites this week.
Henderson played her way into the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic earlier this year through Monday qualifying. She tied for 33rd, earning $8,917. She is also playing Symetra Tour events. She tied for second with her older sister, Brittany, at the Symetra’s Florida Natural Charity Classic last month.
Ko wasn’t surprised to see Henderson in the hunt.
“I think really age doesn't matter,” Ko said. “Experience, I think, matters. Seventeen years old or whatever, we're all players at the end of the day, trying to play our best.”