Brooke Henderson has taken the latest leap up the rankings and into a new level of profile on the LPGA Tour, not only with the talent she used to take her first LPGA win, but because she earned tour membership, instead of having it handed to her.
Her native talent is a surprise to nobody who has watched her climb to the No. 1 amateur ranking in the world last year, leading to her decision to turn pro last December.
Those kinds of stories had many believing that the 17-year-old from Smiths Falls was a slam-dunk for preferential treatment, beginning with her petition to commissioner Michael Whan to attend qualifying school last year, despite not reaching the tour’s minimum age of 18.
Whan’s denial of that request was seen by some in Canada as an insult, with many, including one member of the media, voicing their displeasure on Twitter, even if it did make perfect sense for Whan to stick to his guns.
After all, the precedent was one LPGA Tour victory, which Henderson didn’t have at the time, but Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson did when they were welcomed into the LPGA when they were under 18.
To allow Henderson into the club would have been setting new criteria for underage players and that could have been dangerous considering the age that players, particularly on the female side, are developing these days. How long would it have been, for example, until a 13-year-old was applying for membership?
“I’m very comfortable with the policy,” said Whan.
“I think what a lot of fans don’t understand – because I would get emails and texts and tweets and why aren’t you out there handing her a card? – we don’t have a system by which I say in April, `You know what? She should be a member,’” he added.
“So essentially she has to petition under 18 and she petitioned me three times,” said Whan.
The first petition came last year when she wanted to attend Q-school, which Whan denied, triggering the protest.
The second came in June after Henderson won the Four Winds Invitational in South Bend, Ind., on the Symetra Tour. That time, Whan made her a member of the main development circuit for the LPGA Tour.
The third petition came after her victory at the Cambia Portland Classic. At that point, Whan had no choice and she’s playing her first tournament as a full member of the tour on home soil at this week’s CP Women’s Open.
She’s already the centre of attention in Vancouver and she was as her uncertain season progressed earlier this year, with her finishing third at the Swinging Skirts in San Francisco and adding a couple of T5 finishes in majors.
Not only was Henderson a focus for Canadians, she became a drawing card for events in the U.S., as well. In short, it would have been easy for Whan to cave.
“I would tell you that her resume today versus her resume a year ago is 100 per cent different,” said Whan.
“She went out and earned it the old-fashioned way and proved that she belonged, so yeah, generally speaking, of the percentages of the petitions I get, I probably turn down 98 per cent of them if I had to do the history,” he said.
That’s the part that Canadians might not have seen in their protest of Whan’s original decision to deny Henderson’s original petition.
“I get plenty of petitions from all over the world and with all different resumes. You know about Brooke’s, but I get them from China and Australia and the U.S., and everywhere else,” said Whan, adding there are incredibly important factors to consider.
“What’s different about the LPGA and I think a lot of people don’t think about it is A, we play all over the world, so you’re landing in Bangkok, second event of the year, you’re landing in Singapore, Korea, Malaysia. You’re obviously landing all over North America as well. We’re landing in Mexico City. That’s different,” he said.
“I don’t know if you have kids, but think about your 15, 16, 17-year-old. There is a lot of interaction with older people, a lot of alcohol at pro-am parties, that kind of stuff and a lot of that is what it takes to be a member,” said Whan.
“The other thing I’m trying to avoid is I don’t want people’s greatest golf experience to be between the ages of 12 and of 16 and totally burn out, so I want to make sure they’re playing at age-specific and quality-specific ranks,” he added.
Each year, it’s brought up that a Canadian hasn’t won a LPGA event on home soil since Jocelyne Bourassa in 1973. Henderson has a real shot to do that this week and she isn’t just a longshot to win next months Evian Championship, the final major of the year, where she will celebrate her 18th birthday. She’s a legitimate contender.
On the other hand, there are times when she may stumble at times. It’s happened to others such as Yani Tseng and Lydia Ko. If change is inevitable, so is the fact that golfers aren’t always going to be on top of their games. Personally, I see Henderson being able to deal with that when it happens.
She’s tough and I think she proved that this year in not getting her way and dealing with things such as a missed cut at the Manulife LPGA Classic in Cambridge, Ont., or a T61 finish at the Women’s British Open. In each case, she bounced back to bigger and better things.
Even she now acknowledges that having to Monday qualify for several events or play on the Symetra Tour and not having membership simply handed to her was in the long run, a good thing.
“Last year, when my petition was denied and I didn’t get to play qualifying school and have a chance for my card, I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” she said.
“It really made me realize what I really wanted in life and what I really desired, and it made me work really, really hard, and it made me focus and be more determined,” said Henderson.
“It’s probably the best thing that could have happened. It made me work really hard and this way, it feels a lot better knowing that I deserve to be out here,” she said.