By Chris Stevenson, The Rideau View Golf Insider
It was a couple of years ago under a California desert sun and Brooke Henderson had just come off the range at Mission Hills at the ANA Inspiration, the first major of the LPGA season.
We were talking about the golf swing, about how many different ways to swing the club there were on display as we looked down the range at her competition working on different aspects of their games that day.
Coaches hovered nearby with launch monitors and their phones at the ready, recording swings and showing them to the players, breaking down the data, tweaking positions.
“I’m definitely a feel player. I think everybody is different. I know there are players out here (on the LPGA Tour) who are extremely technical. Lots of times I don’t understand what they’re talking about,” Henderson said with a laugh.
She is a natural talent.
Henderson, by her estimation, has had the same golf swing since she was three years old.
Built at the Smiths Falls Golf and Country and fueled by the need to keep up with her older sister, Brittany, it is unconventional. She needed to keep up with Brittany, so she turned back far and she swung hard.
Her backswing takes her club well past horizontal and then the club lags well behind her as she unleashes a mad body rotation. She is powered by legs and a core toned by the up-down repetition of a goaltender’s life (more evidence of how playing multiple sports can help an athlete) and creates clubhead speed which has become the most valuable commodity in the modern game.
“Nobody ever really touched it or changed it and I’m really grateful they didn’t. It’s unique to me, but it works,” she said that day. “I’m always trying to get it a little bit stronger and a little bit tighter and things like that, but it’s definitely my swing and hopefully it’s here for the long run.”
It is a swing that is a product of her athleticism, requires timing and that so hard to quantify golf term, feel.
Sunday was interesting because of the two big winners: Henderson becoming the first Canadian to win her national open championship since 1973 and Bryson DeChambeau winning the first event of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs. They are two players who couldn’t be at more opposite ends of the “feel” and “technical” spectrum.
Given a choice between a feel player and technical player at the top of their games, I’ll take the feel player every time. I just think the potential for imagination and creativity, especially from a tight spot, is greater with the feel player.
I’ve had the opportunity to see Henderson play dozens of rounds in the biggest tournaments over the past few years, including her win at the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA, her only major win (so far), but I don’t know if I’ve seen her swinging as free and as assured and confident as she did on Sunday.
It showed most in her wedge play. It hasn’t been the strongest part of her game. Her wedge play cost her a win down the stretch at the Marathon Classic in July, a tournament which she led going into the third round. Hey, if you play long enough, there are going to be some that get away.
She is a powerful driver of the ball. She is the best driver on the LPGA Tour when she’s on. While that’s the foundation of her game, what’s going to put her over the top any given week is her wedge play and putting. That doesn’t make her different than a lot of players, but those players don’t have her ball-striking skills, as well.
What stood out for me was the tempo and rhythm she had on those scoring approaches.
On the sixth, from 96 yards, she put it inside three feet. From 109 yards on the 13th, again, another kick-in. On 18, 69 yards in, inside four feet for a finishing birdie and a 65.
The finesse part of her game, particularly her tempo with those wedge shots (she uses PING Glide 2.0 Stealth wedges), was as good as I’ve seen it.
Maybe she’s found something there.
She’s had her inconsistent stretches, typical for a feel player, and those periods usually spark talk she needs to go outside her family circle for another set of eyes to bring a little consistency to her game. That can be a slippery slope. There are a few cautionary tales — Padraig Harrington comes to mind — of players who dominated and tried to get better and went in the other direction.
If she can keep that feeling she showed with her wedges and her putting on Sunday, I think she can be the world No. 1 (she moved up six spots with her win to eighth in the world, her best standing in a year).
Henderson, who will turn 21 two weeks from Monday, now has multiple win seasons in her three full seasons on the LPGA Tour (she was granted membership after her win at the Cambia Portland Classic late in 2015). It is only a matter of time until she has the most wins of any Canadian player on the major tours.
Near as I can figure, these are the multiple wins by Canadians on the LPGA and PGA Tours:
2 — Gail Graham
2 — Dave Barr
3 — Stan Leonard
3 — Dawn Coe-Jones
4 — Al Balding
4 — Lorie Kane
4 — Stephen Ames (including 2006 Players Championship)
7 — Brooke Henderson (including 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship)
8 — Sandra Post, (including 1968 LPGA Championship)
8 — George Knudson
8 — Mike Weir (including 2003 Masters)
Henderson pulled it all together when the most was on the line — she’s talked about how much winning her national title means to her — and that is the most difficult thing in golf.
Consider this: Jack Nicklaus, in my opinion, is the GOAT. He won 18 majors between 1962 and 1986, a span of 24 years. He won 17 of them between 1962 and 1980. The outlier was the 1986 Masters which he won at age 46.
If we consider his 1962-80 window, his prime, there were seven years in which he did not win a major. That shows you how hard it is. This was a man who devoted his professional life to winning majors. He had the greatest mind and physical gifts. The fact he won 17 out of a potential 72, an awful winning percentage for hockey, but incredible for golf, speaks to the difficulty of bringing your game to a peak when you think it matters most.
The physical and the mental have to be in sync.
Brooke Henderson did it Sunday.
She knows how to play only one way and that’s, as she put it Sunday, with the pedal to the metal. Along with her dad/coach Dave and Brittany, they prepare a game plan for the week. They figure out what lines to take off the tees, where the misses are and have at it.
She averaged 286 yards off the tee Sunday on her way to a 65 and made nine birdies to bring her total for the week to 28 (20 is typically an outstanding week).
She places fearless, aggressive golf. At the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee Country Club, the towering trees had the field cowering off the tee. Henderson hit driver everywhere and beat Lydia Ko, the world No. 1 at the time, in a playoff for her first win in a major.
That’s another part of Henderson’s charm. She goes for it. She’s fun to watch. You usually know how things are going by looking at her face. She can run hot as she showed when she snapped her wedge in half after a poor chip at the KPMG in July.
It was a key Sunday that she was so in control of her emotions, and there were many given the setting and what’s happened this summer, until she could let them all go at the end.
Apart from making a little history, which was most of the focus immediately after the win Sunday, it remains to be seen what this victory means for Henderson’s career in the short- and long-term.
1. Given the passing of her grandfathers this summer and playing on home turf, she is probably not going to face a more emotional situation than the one she overcame in the past week. She will always be able to draw on that now whenever the next pressure situation arises.
2. If she has figured something out with her scoring clubs, if her wedge play on Sunday can be her new normal, her game is ready to move to a new level. I like her chances of making more putts if she’s hitting it three feet from the hole.
3. She is a tremendous natural talent and she is gaining more experience to go with that natural ability. That is a critical combination which I think took a massive leap forward on Sunday.
When she’s feeling it, when her aggressiveness, emotions, athleticism and touch come together, Henderson is the best player in the world.
When it mattered most to her and Canadian golf fans, she showed it Sunday.
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