CAMBRIDGE, ONT. — Paul Vaillancourt remembers trying to teach a group of 8- and 9-year-old kids some aspect of the great game of golf when he noticed a bunch of them just weren’t paying attention.
The former pro at the Smiths Falls Golf Club turned to see what had caught their eye: it was a little girl, aged about six, who was just hammering away at the nearby driving range. The child was, of course, Brooke Henderson. She’s now 11 years older, but is still attracting notice everywhere she plays.
“It was pretty clear right from the get-go ... those types of kids are few and far between,” Vaillancourt says. “Whenever I watch her, I get goosebumps.”
Henderson’s dad, Dave, is a teacher at the Lombardy Public School on the edge of Smiths Falls, and he started taking Henderson and her older sister Brittany to the local course when they were small. Some of Henderson’s earliest memories of the sport are riding in the back of a golf cart next to her dad’s clubs, and watching Brittany hone her game beneath Dave’s tutelage.
“When she first started she thought the best score was who could get in the hole first, so she’d be taking off running,” recalls Brittany, herself an accomplished golfer who went on to play at Coastal Carolina University before joining the Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s development circuit.
“Sometimes we go back and in the late fall when there’s no one really out there, we kind of have a game where, let’s run and see who gets in the hole first.”
Both sisters are playing the LPGA Manulife Classic at Whistle Bear Golf Club on sponsor’s exemptions; it’s fair to say neither is racing from one hole to the next. On the course, it’s serious business, and Canada’s next best hope for a superstar in the game is one of the big draws: Henderson’s face, for example, is on the posters that greet spectators heading in to watch play.
When she lines up for a 40-foot putt — and the ball clunks in the hole — a cluster of grinning witnesses at the edge of the green breaks out in applause.
“Go get ’em, Brooke!” they call out. “Go Smiths Falls!”
Henderson greets them with smiles and handshakes, and poses for photos with little kids, and signs her name on various objects with a felt pen.
“She’s got great talent, but she’s also relatable,” says David Dargie, the executive director of the Hendersons’ Smith Falls-based charity. “She’s already demonstrated that she’s the face of Canadian golf to come.
“It’s like Arnold Palmer. He was a people’s champion. And that’s what Brooke’s going to be.”
Four months shy of her 18th birthday, Henderson has more than 50 wins as an amateur under her belt, with three titles on the Canadian Women’s Tour, including one in 2012 that saw her enter the record books as the youngest player ever to win a professional event.
“It wasn’t something that I knew for sure would happen, but it was definitely a dream and something that I was trying my best to achieve and trying to strive for,” Henderson said this week. “I wanted to be like the girls on tour, like Lorie Kane and Morgan Pressel and Juli Inkster.
“I wanted to be someone out there traveling week to week and playing against the best players in the world.”
Formerly the world’s top-ranked amateur, Henderson went pro in December and turned her back on a scholarship to the University of Florida. Henderson has attracted Titleist, FootJoy and PING as sponsors.
She’s also signed with IMG, the management agency in New York City that handles the likes of Lydia Ko — the LPGA’s top-ranked player — Venus and Serena Williams, Eugenie Bouchard, and Lindsey Vonn.
And this summer, Henderson will be joining Lorie Kane, the last Canadian to win on the LPGA Tour in 2001, as part of the national team at the Pan Am Games. Spectators will have a chance to see her much-discussed, unorthodox swing, which derives surprising power from her five-foot-four frame and allows her to drive the ball upwards of 300 yards.
Golf Channel analyst Kay Cockerill has called it “unique.” Her backswing extends further than most golfers, with the clubhead dipping past the point of being parallel with the ground. As she pulls through to hit the ball, her weight shifts forward and her left leg straightens quickly with a brisk pop.
Doug Peacock, a pro who worked at the Scarboro Golf and Country Club for 30 years, watches Henderson swing. He says he’s only seen two other golfers who look like that: Bubba Watson and Lexi Thompson, a 20-year-old American who already has four wins on the LPGA tour.
Dargie says coaches at Golf Canada have been hesitant to change that swing, for fear of interrupting her meteoric rise. “You wouldn’t want to change Brooke,” he says.
“You never want to load expectations on a 17-year-old, but she’s certainly got the wherewithal, she’s got great skill sets, that would certainly have her trending in the direction of a superstar,” says Jeff Thompson, Chief Sport Officer with Golf Canada. “We haven’t had someone like Brooke come around in a long time.”
Henderson once told a group of Brockville, Ont. students that her ultimate aim is to win a permanent spot on the LPGA Tour, which seems an attainable goal, once she turns 18 this fall. But she added that she already has her sights set on the new milestone: the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the next chapter in the dream saga she has been chasing since she still had baby teeth.
Maybe that’s fitting, given that golf hasn’t been part of the Games since 1904. Even more so, considering who won: a Canadian.