Two decades ago, golf professional Paul Vaillancourt ran some camps with then-school teacher Dave Henderson in little Smiths Falls, Ont.
While Vaillancourt and Henderson tried to teach some golf basics to the kids, a kindergartner named Brooke Henderson proved to be a little bit of a distraction.
“She’d be hitting balls at the other end of the range while she was waiting for her daddy and all the kids would just watch her hit,” Vaillancourt recalled over the phone from the Ottawa Valley on Sunday.
“At five years old, she had the same swing you see now.”
That powerful swing — combined with some clutch putting — led Brooke Henderson, 24, to uncharted territory on Sunday as she became the first Canadian to win a second major title when she captured the Evian Championship in France.
No one, of course, could have predicted the 12-time LPGA Tour winner would be the winningest Canadian golfer of all time at the top level before turning 25. But to those who’ve known her since those early days, it’s hardly a surprise to see her excelling on the top stage.
“I was very fortunate to see her first hand,” said former Smiths Falls Golf & Country Club pro Jason McGrath, who now works at Stittsville Golf Course.
“She hasn’t changed. She’s gotten better.”
With her father as her coach, her older sister, Brittany (now her caddie after she also played professionally) as a golf role model, and her mother, Darlene, also playing a vital role in her development on and off the course, Brooke Henderson was making headlines in eastern Ontario for her golf exploits before she even turned 10.
While some have wondered over the years if Brooke would benefit from working with a coach outside her family, Vaillancourt and McGrath see it differently.
“Her sister is great and so are her parents,” McGrath said. “There’s lots of criticism of that obviously, people that are on the outside looking in. They don’t have the right perspective on it. That whole family has stuck together through the good and the bad and there hasn’t been that much bad to be honest.”
Vaillancourt remembers playing a round with Brittany when she set a course record at Smiths Falls, shooting a 67 from the blue tees. About a year later, he was out on the course with Brooke and two others.
“You could just see it in her eyes, she was after her sister’s record,” said Vaillancourt, guesstimating Brooke was 13 at the time. “She shot 39 on the front and proceeded to shoot 28 on the back nine. She tied it.”
When the weather made playing a round impossible, the Hendersons found other ways to help Brooke get better.
“The one thing I’ll say about Dave is he’s very smart at motivating kids. He was a teacher. Just subtle ways,” Vaillancourt said.
“I used to have a little radar thing that told you clubhead speed at my golf school in winter. He just came up to her there, she was 12 years old or something, and he said: ‘Oh Brookie you’ve got to get to 95 m.p.h. by the end of winter here.’ He just said that kind of in passing. For the rest of that year, all she ever did when she showed up is grab that radar gun and get over there and hit balls. She was slamming it as hard as she could to get her speed up.”
As the Brooke buzz was building, those outside the region took notice.
Canadian golf legend Marlene Stewart Streit remembers driving two-plus-hours to Kingston, Ont., to watch her play several times as a kid.
“I guess I thought she was pretty good or else I wouldn’t have driven up there to watch her,” the World Golf Hall of Fame member said from her home in Aurora, Ont., on Sunday. “She’s been good from the get-go.
“She’s done it on her own, there’s no doubt about it. Nobody else can take any credit for her play except Brooke herself.
“She’s exceptional. There’s no taking away from her.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing on Sunday as the first-round leader had a four-putt and gave up top spot before battling back and winning it with a 12-foot putt on No. 18.
Henderson opened with a pair of 7-under 64 rounds, but the way she won — with a grinding even-par 71 — might have been even more impressive.
“She never gave up,” Stewart Streit said. “She just kept playing her own game. Yeah, it’s a challenge but if you’re going to win, that’s what you have to do. It doesn’t take a rocket science to figure it out.
“You either have it or you don’t. She has it.”