What a difference a year has made in the life of Brooke Henderson. I watched as then 16-year old Henderson deliver a breathtaking Sunday performance last year at Pinehurst to snatch the low amateur honors away from Minjee Lee. Henderson’s 2014 US Women’s Open finish inside the top-10 secured her berth at Lancaster this year and in many respects accelerated her pro career track. She’s heading into her final round at Lancaster inside the top-20 and her goal — full status on the LPGA Tour — is in sight. But at what cost?
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While one might question the wisdom of a teenager turning pro, the women’s golf professional ranks are replete with teen aged stars: Morgan Pressel, the youngest-ever winner of a modern LPGA championship (the 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship), turned pro at 17; Lexi Thompson turned pro when she was 15 and within a year was claiming her rightful space on the professional circuit with victories on both the LPGA (2011 Navstar LPGA Classic) and Ladies European Tours (2011 Dubai Ladies Masters).
Within the last two years Lydia Ko, Charley Hull and Minjee Lee have all stormed onto the pro golf stage as teenagers and delivered championship-level performances. And while their paths to the LPGA’s big stage have varied, like Pressel and Thompson before them, they’ve all arrived.
Brooke Henderson has enjoyed the support of her family and her nation as she’s developed from a promising junior golfer into a championship-level competitor. In Henderson’s case, Golf Canada, formerly the Royal Canadian Golf Association, has provided crucial support as she’s played her way through the amateur circuit to the top of the rankings and on into the world of professional competition. As with all athlete sponsorships, the relationship between Henderson and Golf Canada should be one of reciprocity rather than convenience.
Golf Canada has invested much in Brooke Henderson because, as CBC’s Scott Russell explained, she promises to return Canada to golf glory, beginning with the 2015 Pan American Games and beyond — at the 2016 Rio Olympics and, for the big dreamers, even the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
"“With her skill sets, her personality, competitive nature, and natural good looks, we see this leading to a situation where Brooke is in a unique position that could have a very positive impact on the way Canadians view female golf.” – Jeff Thompson, Golf Canada’s Chief Sport Development Officer"
Henderson’s path over the past year hasn’t been an easy one but she’s had Golf Canada and IMG at her back as she’s navigated the slippery path toward a pro golf career; and in return, Golf Canada has had Henderson’s assurance that she’ll lead the Canadian women’s golf team to glory at the Pan American Games this summer in Toronto.
The LPGA Tour didn’t welcome her with open arms as it did Lydia Ko, but then Brooke Henderson didn’t bring any professional wins to the table and Ko did. As a result, for the past year Henderson’s been a pro golfer without a secure berth, depending on sponsor invites — secured, at least in part, through Golf Canada’s agency — and Monday qualifiers to get in the field at pro events.
To be sure, it’s an uncertain path she’s been following, but not an unknown one. Lexi Thompson also played for a year without LPGA Tour status following the same strategy. Henderson’s been making solid progress toward her goal — full LPGA Tour status — and her June win at the Four Winds Invitational got her Symetra Tour status, another step in the right direction.
That win also rearranged Henderson’s priorities. With less than three weeks remaining before tee time at the Pan Am Games, Henderson withdrew, issuing a brief, perfunctory statement of explanation and regret and leaving Golf Canada in the untenable position of filling her spot with a lesser talent:
"“After winning the Four Winds Invitational last week, LPGA commissioner [Michael] Whan graciously granted me membership on the Symetra Tour, which allows me the opportunity to earn my way onto the LPGA. I am now guaranteed a spot in a professional tournament the week of July 13. Based on my goals for the year, this is an opportunity I cannot pass up.”"
I find Henderson’s decision to withdraw from the Pan Am Games both curious and disappointing. Despite lack of Tour status, Henderson’s currently inside the top-20 on the 2015 LPGA Official Money List, a position that if she can maintain would secure 2016 Tour status.
Additionally, there are nine official Symetra Tour events remaining on the 2015 schedule and given Henderson’s level of talent I’d bet she could earn enough winnings in those remaining events to play her way onto the LPGA Tour with or without the single event that’s scheduled during the week of the Pan Am Games. And if both of these routes fail her, Henderson could compete in the Tour’s 2015 Q-School, something she’s trying to avoid but which remains an option both Charley Hull and Minjee Lee followed last year.
Henderson’s decision to abandon her commitment to Golf Canada and the Pan Am Games is troublesome and, given the alternative routes to 2016 LPGA Tour status, her rationale is a bit flimsy. It’s also a decision that contrasts sharply to Jordan Spieth’s approach to prior commitments in the face of enormous professional triumph.
When he could have been forgiven for canceling his commitment to the foundering RBC Heritage following his win at The Masters, Spieth teed it up at Harbor Town; and he did it again at the John Deere this week. While others are tweeting their arrival at the Old Course, Spieth — still cruising high from his Chambers Bay triumph — is grinding out Sunday in Illinois because when he commits, he sticks.
Golf Canada deserved better from Brooke Henderson.