LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA | No hesitation, no change of expression and not a whiff of arrogance. When Brooke Henderson was asked before her first round of 2020 about goals, she didn’t lose the big smile that almost always graces her face. “For sure,” she said, which is a verbal tick that prefaces almost every answer she gives, symbolic of her agreeable nature. Maybe it’s Canadian kindness but even when she’s about to say something that might be construed as controversial, she comes across as if she’s wishing you a happy birthday.
“I think being No. 1 (in the world) would be amazing,” Henderson said at the Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando, site of the LPGA Tour’s season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions.
It’s not the first time the 22-year-old from Smiths Falls, Ont., has mentioned reaching the top of the Rolex Rankings. Not long after she won her lone major, the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, she said she wanted to reach the top spot in the world. If that seemed precocious, remember that at the time another player her age, Lydia Ko, sat atop the world rankings. Henderson rose to No. 3 in the world in 2016. She now sits in the eighth spot despite winning at least once a year since turning pro and becoming the most successful Canadian golfer, male or female, in history.
Most LPGA fans would never guess that Henderson is ranked eighth in the world. Third maybe. Could be as low as fourth. But eighth? The first question most ask is, “OK, Jin Young Ko is No. 1, but who else is ahead of Brooke?”
The answer is Sung Hyun Park (No. 2), the most forgotten champion, who won twice in 2019 and three times, including a major, in 2018; Nelly Korda (No. 3), a year younger than Henderson, who has won three times since October 2018; Danielle Kang (No. 4) – yes, really – who has won in Shanghai in back-to-back seasons; Sei Young Kim (No. 5), winner of the CME Group Tour Championship and its $1.5 million first prize last year; Nasa Hataoka (No. 6), also a year younger than Henderson and winner of three LPGA titles in the last two years; and, finally, Jeongeun Lee6 (No. 7), the reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion.
Henderson has nine LPGA victories including a major since August 2015, four in the last two years. She has also won twice in every full season she has played on tour. So, if the rankings are a head-scratcher to you, you’re not alone. Henderson doesn’t get it, either.
“I feel like the way the rankings are set up right now, the way they work is a little bit complicated,” she said. “If I play a lot of events, which I do – I like to play all the time – (I’m at a disadvantage). So, I feel like, as long as I’m inside the top 10 and maybe inching closer to the top five, I’m really happy with that. I feel like, when you’re in that position, you’re playing really consistent golf and winning, which is fun.
“I think to be in the No. 1 spot I’d have to change my schedule a little bit. But for the most part, I’m just trying to get a little bit better all the time. If my ranking improves, I’m happy.”
“I think a key thing for me is scoring average and keeping it below 70, which I did last year. Again, this year that’s another big goal.” – Brooke Henderson
She’s not wrong. The system is structured so that more world ranking points are awarded for playing fewer events with stronger fields. As Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz, who has been following Henderson since she was an amateur, said, “To get to No. 1, you need to play that world-ranking game. You need to be more selective because it reduces the divisor, and your stronger events, your stronger finishes, end up weighing more, believe it or not. It’s kind of a crazy system.
“My opinion is basically she needs to play the world-ranking game a little better. She needs to pick and choose and not play every week, and she basically plays every week. Choose the tournaments where she has success and she thinks she’ll play well at ahead of time, and others where she maybe hasn’t had success, just don’t play. The problem is with Brooke, if she takes a week off from playing on tour, she’s still playing golf. She plays golf basically every single day unless they go up to the cabin in Ontario. They’re playing golf every day, and she loves it.”
She went to Ontario for a few weeks over the offseason. It was minus-30 degrees. It didn’t take her long to head back to Naples, Fla., where she has a winter home.
“I feel like 2019 was a really successful season for me and my sister (Brittany, who’s her caddie),” Henderson said. “We were really happy with how everything went. I felt like I improved in a lot of places, which was good. I think a key thing for me is scoring average and keeping it below 70, which I did last year. Again, this year that’s another big goal. I feel like, if I can do that, I’ll put myself in contention and hopefully win twice and keep my record alive since 2016, which would be really fun.”
“Every bit of her game is pretty solid,” said Golf Channel commentator Karen Stupples, a past major champion. “I think maybe the putting can be a little bit erratic at times. She can be a bit streaky, but she can make everything. She can miss some. She has up-and-down weeks like that. But I think, because she plays so much, she puts herself out there all the time, you see her having a lot of good results, lots of top-10s, but if she learned to schedule her time a little better. …” Stupples shrugged. Who knows what could happen?
In addition to a healthy LPGA Tour schedule, Henderson rarely says no to a charity invitation. She was at Sandra Gal’s charity event in Bradenton, Fla., for an after-school center the Monday after last season’s CME Group Tour Championship. She played in Morgan & Friends, Morgan Pressel’s breast-cancer fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., two weeks ago. She’ll play in two or three more before the season’s first major.
“She’s got such a good heart,” Stupples said. “That’s what you see with her when you see her helping out the other players with their pro-ams. It’s such a close-knit kind of family with those charity tournaments. She’s really, really helping those players out when she turns up to play because she’s such a star within the women’s game. When she turns up to host those events, it just makes such a big difference to those charities that she’s helping.
“I think that just says a lot for her as a person, her giving nature. That speaks to why we all feel that she’s one of our favorites. She just gives so much of herself but she’s such a fiery competitor to watch, too. It’s always exciting to watch her play. It’s never a dull day with her.”
In an ironic twist, her giving nature and her love of the game might be what keeps Henderson from reaching her goal of being No. 1.
As Golf Channel’s Paige Mackenzie put it, “Brooke is incredibly authentic. Everything you get from her is who she is. I think perhaps the key to understanding the world-ranking game and to maybe cutting out the charity events would be to be more selfish. But that’s not who she is.”
Brooke Henderson doesn’t mind taking a selfie, but selfishness is not in her nature. Photo: Vaughn Ridley, Getty Images
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