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SCOTT STINSON: After a 'surreal' year, Brooke Henderson prepares to defend her Canadian golf title


AURORA, Ont. — Brooke Henderson was 14 years old when played her first CP Women’s Open, and there was a moment on the back nine at Vancouver Golf Club that she remembers, seven years later.

Her ball was on the right side of the hole she was playing alongside fellow Canadian Alena Sharp, and there was a large tree hanging out and blocking her path to the green. It was a moment for caution, the time to take one’s medicine and prevent a big number.

But from the moment she picked up a golf club, Henderson was a shotmaker. On that day in Vancouver, she hit a big cut, bending it left to right around the tree to the middle of the green. Sharp came over to her and told her it was a “really nice shot.”

“So, that’s cool,” Henderson said Tuesday at Magna Golf Club, recalling the memory. A professional like Sharp was taking note of her shot-making ability, even respecting it, she says now. “I think playing with her was a really eye-opening experience for me,” Henderson says.

What has happened in the years since is a familiar story to any Canadian with even a passing interest in golf. Henderson won her first LPGA event when she was still just 17 years old, and she has kept picking them up at a steady pace. Last summer she won the CP Women’s Open in Saskatchewan for her seventh victory, becoming the first Canadian to win on home soil in 50 years, and two wins this season have given her more than Mike Weir managed in his brilliant career. And she is still just 21. Oh, and side note: she and Sharp grew to become close friends. Now, Henderson, the kid who learned the game while following her big sister, Brittany, around the courses of eastern Ontario, comes to the CP Women’s Open as the defending champion, and the rock star of the field. At this lush and verdant course, the private plaything of an auto-parts magnate somehow hidden amid the housing tracts and strip malls of Toronto’s northern suburbs, Henderson is the face of the tournament. It is a long distance from the kid playing her first national open, but it did not take much time.

“It’s pretty cool,” she says, ever economical with her words. “Before I got on the LPGA Tour I just wanted to become a member.” (She had to win an event as an amateur before the Tour allowed her to join.) “I wanted to win, and now just a few years later I have nine wins, which is pretty incredible.” And even though she won a major, the Women’s PGA Championship, in her first full season on Tour in 2016, Henderson says the victory in the Prairies last year stands out. “(It’s) probably the highlight of my career so far,” she says, of a victory in which she roared out to a big lead, but had to steer it home with a solid Sunday round. “Just being with all the great fans and … just having so much attention on me and then still being able to perform as well as I did and execute those shots under pressure was really exciting for me.”

That victory pushed her stardom to a new level in this country, and the two wins this year, pushing her past Weir and George Knudson as the winningest Canadian professional golfer, brought her a new round of attention and congratulations from around the country. She says she never knows how many people are paying attention to her career until she wins something, and then it floods in. This year she has had notes from Justin Trudeau, Wayne Gretzky and Anne Murray, which is a fairly eclectic cross-section of Canadian celebrity. “It gives you chills sometimes,” Henderson says. “Why are these people reaching out to me? It’s kind of surreal.”

She since had the chance to return the favour, posting congrats on social media for Toronto’s Bianca Andreescu after her Rogers Cup win at home this month. “To watch another Canadian win on Canadian soil is very special,” Henderson says. “I think watching her do it just a couple weeks ago, so close to this event, you know, gives me a little bit extra motivation to try to play well this week.” Henderson smiles as she mentions this, as she does with almost every question. For all of her prodigious accomplishments, she still comes across as a little shy, a little nervous, more fearless on the course than she is in the press tent.

But the fact that she hasn’t changed much might also explain her consistent success on the LPGA Tour, where she has won at least twice in four straight seasons. She’s still true to her origin story: the self-taught kid from Smiths Falls who has had one coach, her father, Dave. The sister she grew up mimicking is now her long-time caddie. In the world of professional golf, where so many employ many coaches and talk endlessly about launch angles and spin rates, Henderson is an anomaly.

“I would definitely still say I’m a feel player,” she says. “My sister studies the green books and yardages all night. She’s out on the course right now just taking notes. She’s more of the technical strategy, things like that.”

Henderson says she just wants a yardage, and she’ll “feel my way around the course.” She smiles again, eyes squinting.

“I feel like it’s a great balance and probably why we work so well together. We bring two different aspects of the game and put them together,” Henderson says. “So far over the last four years I guess it’s been successful and we’ve had a lot of fun.”

She guesses it’s been successful. Understated, as always.

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