RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — It seems like Brooke Henderson can’t win.
That’s in the figurative sense because the 19-year-old from Smiths Falls has proven she is one of the world’s best. She’s won three times on the LPGA Tour. She beat world No. 1 Lydia Ko in a playoff with one of the best pressure shots in Canadian golf history to win her first major last season, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
But despite her success last year in a demanding schedule that included the Olympics — her 31 events last season and 121 rounds were the most on Tour — critics said she was playing too much and was going to burn herself out.
For sure, it was a demanding year. After her win at the KPMG and a successful defence of her title at the Cambia Portland Classic, Henderson was one of the favourites going into the Olympics. One only had to spend a little time around her to see how many demands on her time there were heading into Rio.
She was always there to do another interview or sign another autograph or take a selfie with a young fan, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that, after pushing so hard in 2016, her results to start 2017 haven’t been up to Henderson’s or her fans’ expectations.
Now the narrative is, “What’s up with Brooke Henderson?”
Probably nothing other than the ebbs and flows of golf, and easing into a fresh season after an incredibly demanding 2016. She’s 18th on the money list in 2017 and her best finish is a T4 earlier this month in Singapore. Her world ranking has gone from a high of second to the depths of 13th.
She’s pushed her official career earnings to $1.9 million and is one of the hottest commodities in the sports marketing world.
What a disaster.
When she missed the cut last week at the Kia Classic (as did Ko), commentator Judy Rankin said Henderson needed “to go back to being the bubbly Brooke on the course we saw last year.”
I haven’t seen Henderson play as much golf as some, but more than most, and I’ve seen her steaming on the course at times in the past. Bubbly? Like Dion Phaneuf is bubbly in front of the net. She’s as competitive as anybody. I would argue it’s tough to be bubbly when you’re grinding to try to avoid slamming your trunk on Friday.
She has no regrets about pushing as hard as she did last year and she’s not accepting the idea it’s human nature to have a bit of a letdown after such consistently strong performances last year.
“That wasn’t my plan (to ease into 2017), but last year was a really busy year and I met all of my goals,” said Henderson. “It was kind of like the perfect year, 17 top 10s, winning two events including a major, representing Canada in the Olympics. It was kind of a highlight year.
“This far into the 2017, I haven’t necessarily performed or gotten the results I want, but I feel like my game is really close. Hopefully I can just tune up a little bit mentally and get focused on what I have to do,” she said.
As has been the case for as long as she has been playing golf, her dad, Dave, is her coach (Canadian national women’s team coach Tristan Mullally was part of the Henderson camp heading into the Olympics last year, but that arrangement ended with the conclusion of the Olympics), and he likes what he’s seen lately.
“Brooke’s game is right there,” said Dave, brushing off the missed cut last week. “We got on the wrong side of the draw and it was cold, wet and raining in San Diego, and we least expected that. The course played very tough the first eight, nine holes and Brooke went one-under after the first five holes (in which she was four-over). Her game was right there. The second day (she shot 74), you can’t even look at that because now we’re pressing, now we’re doing things to try and get it back.”
As she heads into the ANA Inspiration, the first major of the golf season, and as the LPGA Tour starts to hit prime time, Henderson is optimistic.
“I think my game is right there that I can win a few more times and I think that starts this week,” she said. “Having played the golf course the last few days, I think it suits my game really well, so if I can get my mental attitude the way it should be, I think I’ll be right there on Sunday.”
And maybe she’ll even be bubbly.