BY Kristina Rutherford IN SMITHS FALLS, ONT.
BY Kristina Rutherford IN SMITHS FALLS, ONT.
Brooke Henderson won an LPGA tournament last summer at 17, but she wasn't surprised. She's been punching above her age bracket for as long as she can remember.

The tee shot rolls to a stop 10 feet from the pin, and Brooke Henderson drops her club into her bag, hops into the driver’s seat of her cart and rips along the path. She could navigate this 185-yard par three in her sleep. After all, this course is her “home,” according to the sign on the way in. “Every time I step up to a hole, memories flash back,” she says, blond ponytail flapping in the wind.

Henderson’s first big tournament was right here at Smiths Falls Golf & Country Club, a four-minute drive from the house she grew up in. Though it was eight years ago, she remembers opening that tournament with the best front nine of her life, and carrying the lead into Sunday. “But I didn’t win,” she says, pulling her cart to a stop by the 14th green. “I didn’t play well on the second day.” She thinks about it a little more and remembers: “I cried.”

Henderson was 10 years old and she came second–in the ladies’ club championship. In a picture alongside the winner, Penny May, Henderson comes up to May’s elbow. The runner-up is smiling for the camera, but make no mistake: It’s an act.

Brooke Henderson may only have made the news in this country last summer when she won the LPGA’s Cambia Portland Classic at 17, the Tour’s third-youngest tournament champion ever. But it came as no surprise to her: That was just part of the plan. The kid who quotes Mike Babcock in interviews and answers with a straight-faced “yes” when asked whether she’s going to the Olympics to win gold has exceptionally high standards because she’s been exceptional since preschool. And while those in pro golf have known about her since she was a preteen, Henderson is now old enough to prove herself on stages where the rest of the world pays attention.

It was here that she first captured attention, on this unremarkable driving range—the golf equivalent to hockey’s battered garage doors. The blue-eyed 18-year-old laughs and shakes her head when she considers how many balls she’s hit here over the years. “A million?” she guesses, nose wrinkling.

Henderson inherited her first set of cut-down clubs from her great-grandma—who was a member here into her 90s—and grew up emulating her sister, Brittany, who’s six years older and now both her caddie and a pro on the Symetra Tour. The Henderson girls spent hours and days on their home course, but it wasn’t easy for their dad, Dave, to get his daughters tee times elsewhere when they were little. “Smaller courses discriminated on gender and age,” says Dave, a recently retired teacher who’s coached both daughters throughout their careers. “[But] I knew the complaint was because the girls played better than the people complaining.”

Henderson, standing off the range after a warm-up, recalls playing junior tournaments starting at age nine: “As soon as they’d let me.” She played against women ranging from their 20s to their 70s when she was in Grade 5. “It taught me that age doesn’t matt—,” she starts to say, but she’s cut off before she can finish the thought.

“Brooke—it’s so nice to see you home for a change!”

A woman in a visor bespeckled with multicoloured rhinestones has spotted Henderson, and she and three other white-haired ladies who were on their way out for a late-morning round lean in for hugs. They congratulate Henderson on her LPGA win (“We were glued to the tube,” one says) and pepper her with questions about how long she’s here for (just a couple of days) and what it’s like to be a full-time member on the Tour (“It’s awesome”).

When Henderson is asked how many balls she's hit at her home club over the years, she laughs and shakes her head. "A million?"

Henderson hasn’t been home in months, not since she won that LPGA title in August. After the women get back in their carts and speed off to play their round, she points out that “everything has changed” since then. “I even got a tweet from the Prime Minister,” she says, grinning. “Unbelievable.”

In winning when and how she did—she Monday-qualified before dusting the competition by eight strokes, the largest margin of victory on Tour in three years—Henderson announced herself to the world in one of the loudest ways possible. The first Canadian to win an LPGA event in 14 years, she effectively forced the Tour to make her the third player ever to earn membership status before her 18th birthday, and became one of the faces of women’s golf in a hurry.

But it’s in this little town on the Rideau Canal, about an hour’s drive south of Ottawa, that you get a sense of how good she’s been and for how long. Members at her home club gush about how she’s been striping balls straight and long on the range since well before her first day of school, and you won’t miss the Brooke Henderson shrine in the clubhouse, with photos of her holding various trophies and sporting that beaming smile at various ages. Her name was added to the town’s welcome sign in 2014, and the first Brooke Henderson Appreciation Day happened in Smiths Falls four years ago. As stalwart club member Penny May (the woman who years ago won that title over a 10-year-old Henderson) puts it: “We’ve been bragging about Brooke for a long time.”

The women on the LPGA Tour saw her coming, too, starting when she was in elementary school. Fellow Canadian pro Alena Sharp first heard about the teenager she now calls a friend (they celebrated Henderson’s 18th birthday at a tournament in France last year with chocolate cake and pizza) when Henderson was 11. “I heard someone say, ‘She’s the real deal,’” Sharp says. “You don’t hear that about a player that age unless they’re really great, because golf is a fickle game. But Brooke is amongst that class.”

“Members at Henderson's home club gush about how she's been striping balls since before her first day of school”

Henderson is now back behind the wheel and driving out to No. 15, giving quick snapshots of accomplishments she’s reached at a young age, elaborating on that age-doesn’t-matter point she was trying to make earlier. At 14, she played in her first LPGA tournament. That same year, she became the youngest golfer in history to win a pro event, with a victory on the Canadian Women’s Tour. She says it’s “crazy” to think she owns that distinction, not Tiger or Rory or World No. 1 Lydia Ko. “It opened my eyes that all this was possible, playing golf for a living,” she says. Henderson pauses, then adds: “Not that I ever doubted it.”

Henderson’s confidence is unmistakable, and she’s vocal about her goals. Last season, it was to win on Tour: “I didn’t know if it was reasonable, but I knew it was possible,” she says matter-of-factly. This year, it’s upping her world ranking, which reached No. 10 in mid-March. And though she entered her first pro season with an incredible resumé, she still sought out a mentor in Sharp, who’s been on Tour for 10 years. “Other young players aren’t like that,” Sharp says. “Maybe they feel like they don’t need help. That’s why she’s so easy to want to help. She’s got a great head on her shoulders.”

Henderson’s confidence on the course is something Sharp, 35, envies. Henderson has the belief to use her driver where most players wouldn’t (her average drive ranks among the top 15 on Tour, at 272 yards) and she always seems relaxed. “I really don’t know if she gets nervous,” Sharp says. Henderson says she used to, but asks, “What’s the point of that, really?” If only it were that easy for the rest of us. It helps that she has a four-leaf clover on one shoe and travels with a lucky stuffed pink monkey, a turtle and a ladybug. Ladybugs are good luck, “unless they have seven dots,” she warns.

On the course, a three-on-three best-ball competition has broken out, with Brittany Henderson, Dave and the course GM on one team, and Henderson, her childhood instructor Paul Vaillancourt and a hack writer on the other. The sisters produce near-identical drives and approach shots on No. 15. On the green, Dave suggests that his youngest daughter’s team putts first. “Why?” Henderson asks. “Because you’re gonna three-putt?”

There are stories for days about her competitive nature. Any long-time member of this club has a few, and the one about the hours she spent hitting balls in the pouring rain is a popular refrain. Vaillancourt runs the local indoor golf school where Henderson spent a lot of winter days, back when she doubled as a hockey goalie for the Smiths Falls Cubs and would whip a tennis ball at the wall to test her reflexes during breaks from hitting balls. (She played her last game at the midget age to focus on golf.) But Vaillancourt’s favourite memory happened right here: He remembers watching from the clubhouse deck when, at 10, Henderson played in a junior tournament against a bunch of older boys. She three-putted the last hole to tie one of them. The kid with the long blond braid shook hands, picked up her bag and walked off the green, dragging her putter through the parking lot. She sat down behind Vaillancourt’s car and sulked until he went out to talk to her. “From the beginning,” Vaillancourt says, “you could see that fire.”

Today, Henderson’s team does not win the best-ball competition. She even finds water on a tee-shot. “That’s OK,” she says, smiling. Later, Vaillancourt widens his eyes and whispers: “She’s piiiissed.”

She may be, but Henderson hides it well. She thinks back to that little girl who cried after her first club championship and remembers how all the ladies were trying to console her, telling her how good she was. “I was so disappointed with how I played,” she says. “It wasn’t that I lost—it was that I knew I could do better.”

Remind her that she was just 10 and playing against women with much more experience and she just laughs.

Vaillancourt doesn’t remember much about Henderson losing that first tournament. He only recalls the next year, at age 11, when she won it by 23 strokes.

Photo Credits

John Kealey