Henderson: Canada’s winningest pro golfer ever

Talent, competitive spirit and the willingness to work hard have made her Canada’s most successful professional golfer, based on major pro tour victories, and a needle-mover in her sport.

GORD HOLDER, POSTMEDIA Updated: December 26, 2019

Brooke Henderson, seen here making a sponsor-related appearance at an Ottawa Golf Town outlet in 2017, was selected as one of the newsmakers of the decade by the Postmedia Ottawa newsroom. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / POSTMEDIA

Over the past 10 years, we’ve faced floods and tornadoes, terror and fear, and nightmares on our roads. Most importantly, this decade has given us heroes — people who inspire with their brilliance and courage. These stories helped shape the Ottawa we live in today. In our annual newsmakers series, we examine the decade’s biggest stories. Today, Brooke Henderson.

It was January 2013, only a few weeks after Brooke Henderson was named to the Canadian women’s amateur golf team. She was just 15.

How good, Henry Brunton was asked, could she become?

“Well …” the award-winning teaching pro and long-time coach of the national men’s team said. “Handled the right way, she could be the best player Canada has ever seen.”

It was easy then to regard that as hyperbole, but it turned out Brunton knew something.

Henderson became No. 1 in the world amateur rankings on the day she turned 17. She became a professional golfer three months later and, in five years since, has racked up nine LPGA Tour victories, the most ever by a Canadian, plus $6.5 million US in earnings.

For all those reasons and more, including world-wide renown and the attention she has brought to Canadian sport and to her hometown of Smiths Falls, the now 22-year-old Henderson has been voted one of the newsmakers of the decade by Postmedia’s Ottawa newsroom.

Golfer Brooke Henderson waves to the crowd after being introduced during an Ottawa Senators NHL home game in December 2016. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / POSTMEDIA

“When you’re around a player like that, you see how unique she is with the focus and the self-belief,” Brunton said recently. “There was just something about her as far as she was obviously on a mission. She was just that kind of player, and it seemed like her whole family and everybody was behind her … She had the potential and she has done it.”

One of those whose tournament-victory record Henderson broke, Sandra Post, notably bailed early on a Rideau Hall reception for the Order of Canada’s 50th anniversary and zipped over to Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club to see Henderson and Brittany Marchand of Orangeville, Ont., in the 2017 CP Women’s Open.

“This is a young person who truly believes in herself and her ability and loves to compete and wants to win,” said Post, who shared the record of eight LPGA/PGA tour victories with fellow Canadian Golf Hall of Fame inductees George Knudson and Mike Weir.

“We used to use the word ‘hungry,’ and she believes that she belongs at the top. You can’t be really taught that. Her parents have done a wonderful job, her sister. Her team has done a wonderful job.

“But they just don’t come along all the time. You don’t develop that, you don’t build that. It’s just sort of that unknown quality inside people, and she definitely has that.”

Ottawa Hunt got crowded during that August week, with 53,000 tickets sold to spectators drawn generally by their first opportunity in nine years to watch LPGA Tour players and leading amateurs compete in person, but mostly by Henderson, who barely qualified for the final two rounds, but soared into contention with a course-record score of 63 in the third round before settling into a final tie for 12th.

A smiling Brooke Henderson arrives at Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club for the first day of CP Women’s Open tournament week in August 2017. GORD HOLDER / POSTMEDIA

A year later, in Regina, she realized a dream by becoming the first Canadian to win an LPGA Tour event on home soil since 1973. Tournament director Ryan Paul said crowds in Saskatchewan’s capital might have matched Ottawa’s, too, although inclement weekend weather kept the total to about a still-newsworthy 45,000, and similar attendance was reported in 2019 at suburban Aurora, Ont., where Henderson tied for third.

“It all grows,” Paul said, referring to the “Brooke factor” on sponsorship and corporate sales, “just as ticket sales does.

“She just has that kind of spark to her that’s drawing an attendance of all kinds, and even volunteers. In Ottawa, we sold out of volunteers six weeks before the event, and that’s something we’ve never done before … And then, from the tournament side, you get more companies that are invested in Canadian golf now, either by supporting the event or her or both, because of her.”

Brunton says growing up in a small community helped Henderson’s golfing development: no barriers to playing and ample opportunities to practise. At age 15, he said, she wore out a set of irons because she hit so many balls during golf season.

Eastern Ontario teaching pro Paulin Vaillancourt worked with the young Henderson and her sister Brittany, a four-year U.S. college golfer and briefly a tour pro before becoming Brooke’s full-time caddy, at his indoor winter school and at Smiths Falls Golf and Country Club, where he was then head pro.

One tale Vaillancourt tells is of Brooke alternating hitting balls with other drills to sharpen her goaltending skills — she played competitive hockey into her early teens — during winter practice sessions.

The Town of Smiths Falls erected a sign paying tribute to golfer Brooke Henderson and her sister/caddy, Brittany Henderson. CHERYL DOW PHOTO

Another story features the Hendersons practising on the range even as golf season wound down and October weather turned foul. He’d say, “OK,” as long as they collected every ball.

“And they would do that,” Vaillancourt said. “They would hit balls together and, at the end of the session, they would go out and pick them up. There’d be nobody at the golf course except for those two and me.

“The work ethic was unbelievable, and Brooke just knew she had what it took to be where she’s at today.”

Where she’ll be in another decade is open to speculation.

“I am really happy with how my career has gone. I am always trying to stick to process and make small gains every day,” Henderson wrote in an email forwarded by an IMG agency representative.

“My focus is taking it one day at a time. My team and I set short- and long-term goals before every season. We are excited for the start of 2020 and the next few years.”

A silhouette photo of Brooke Henderson playing in the Wednesday pro-am event during the 2017 CP Women’s Open at Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club. TONY CALDWELL / POSTMEDIA

PERSONAL

Full Name: Brooke Mackenzie Henderson

Age: 22

Hometown: Smiths Falls, Ont.

AMATEUR GOLF HIGHLIGHTS

Tournament victories: More than 50, including four on the open series of qualifying events for the Canadian Women’s Open, plus the 2012 Canadian junior girls championship, the 2013 Canadian women’s amateur championship, the individual portion of the 2014 Women’s World Amateur Team Championship.

Ranking: Reached No. 1 in the women’s amateur golf rankings on Sept. 10, 2014, the same day she turned 17.

PROFESSIONAL GOLF HIGHLIGHTS

Graduation day: On Dec. 18, 2014, Henderson relinquished her amateur golf status and became a professional golfer, signing with the powerhouse IMG agency. After completing her final semester of high school, she was presented with her diploma on the practice green at the Smiths Falls Golf and Country Club in the midst of a

Earning LPGA Tour membership: The commissioner of the LPGA Tour denied Henderson’s initial request for an exemption to the tour’s rule of 18 as the minimum age for membership, so she used a combination of sponsor invitations and qualifying rounds to play in 10 tournaments as a non-member professional, winning a total of $661,264 U.S. of what the tour refers to as “unofficial money.” After she won the Cambia Portland Classic by eight strokes, becoming only the third golfer to win on the LPGA Tour before her 18th birthday, commissioner Michael Whan approved a second application for membership.

LPGA Tour victories: 9, most ever by a Canadian — 2015 Cambia Portland Classic; 2016 KPMB Women’s PGA Championship and Cambia Portland Classic; 2017 Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give and McKayson New Zealand Women’s Open; 2018 LOTTE Championship and CP Women’s Open; 2019 LOTTE Championship and Meijer LPGA Classic for Simply Give.

Oh Canada! Henderson’s 2018 victory in the CP Women’s Open at the Wascana Country Club in Regina made her the first Canadian to win an LPGA Tour event on home soil since Jocelyne Bourassa won what was then called La Canadienne in suburban Montreal in 1973.

Cashing in: After becoming an official LPGA Tour member, Henderson earned $100,294 in the handful of tournaments remaining on the 2015 schedule. In four full seasons since, she has earned $1,724,420, $1,504,869, $1,473,247 and $1,696,017. Her career total of $6,498,847 in “official money” ranks 42nd overall all-time on the tour and second among Canadians behind only Charlottetown’s Lorie Kane, who is 37th with $6,953,047.

Awards: Three-time recipient of the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as The Canadian Press female athlete of the year for 2015, 2017 and 2018.

Brooke Henderson of Canada poses with the New Zealand Women’s Open trophy after winning that LPGA Tour event in Auckland in October 2017. HANNAH PETERS / GETTY IMAGES

VOICES

“Being named a ‘newsmaker of the decade’ is really awesome, especially since I have only been playing professional golf for five years. I am grateful to have had a very successful amateur career followed by a successful start to my professional career.” — Brooke Henderson, professional golfer.

“When I first saw Brooke, when she was five years old, I saw her first swing and I knew right away that she was going to be what she is today. There was no doubt in my mind about that. She just had it.” — Paulin Vaillancourt, teaching pro.

“I love playing golf and love playing tournaments. Being able to compete against the best in the world every single week is a dream come true for me.” — Brooke Henderson.

Brooke Henderson and her caddy, sister Brittany Henderson, show off wide smiles as they walk to the 18th green in the final round of the 2018 CP Women’s Open at Wascana Country Club in Regina. Brooke Henderson won that tournament to become the first Canadian to win an LPGA Tour event on home soil since 1973. VAUGHN RIDLEY / GETTY IMAGES

“There’s very few players in sport, not only golf, that can make an impact on a single event like Brooke Henderson can. Her attendance in the CP Women’s (Open) is, I won’t say critical, but it’s very important, just how she has helped grow the game of golf and really inspired people of all ages … What’s crazy is the amount of kids that now come out to this event to see her. She’s just such an inspiration. She has that charisma and that smile and that attitude of how she approaches the game, there’s just nothing not to like.” — Ryan Paul, tournament director for the CP Women’s Open.

“The CP Women’s Open is an incredibly special championship to me. I am very proud to be a CP ambassador and help in a very small way to raise funds for CP Has Heart every year. I love the huge crowds that are out following me on this special week. I feel I can use the energy of the crowd to my advantage when I am playing well and making birdies.” — Brooke Henderson.

“She had a fantastic role model in her sister, who was her hero, I believe, at one point. She had a father who was a tremendous player, an uncle who’s a tremendous player, so she was around (them). The environment was enriched … Obviously she had the possibilities and the opportunities to compete, to play, and it was just a perfect storm, but she put the work in. She’s the one.” — Henry Brunton, teaching pro and former national men’s amateur team coach.

“To be ranked No. 1 in the women’s world amateur rankings was definitely an amateur highlight for me. This gave me some confidence before turning professional. Winning the LPGA Portland Classic in 2015 by eight shots … It was my first victory on tour and also gave me my tour membership. I think winning my first major (KPMG Women’s PGA Championship) in 2016 and winning the CP Women’s Open were huge moments for my career. This past year, I was very happy to tie the Canadian record for wins on both the LPGA and PGA tours with my eighth victory in Hawaii, followed by my ninth victory to break the record in June.” — Brooke Henderson.

“The glass is always half-full for me. I think she has a lot left in the tank, let’s put it that way.” — Sandra Post, eight-time LPGA Tour winner and Canadian Golf Hall of Fame inductee.

Sandra Post, right, poses with Lorie Kane at the 2010 Canadian Women’s Open at the St. Charles Country Club in Winnipeg in August 2010. BRIAN DONOGH / POSTMEDIA FILES

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Ottawa’s newsmakers of the decade were selected by Postmedia editors and by newsroom voting.

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