Miami – In 2012, the next generation of golf’s top players arrived earlier than anticipated. Andy Zhang, 14, became the youngest contestant in U.S. Open history. Also 14, Tianlang Guan won the Asia-Pacific Amateur to earn an invitation to the 2013 Masters. This April at Augusta National Golf Club, Guan will become the youngest competitor in the event’s prestigious history.
In addition, just weeks after capturing the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Lydia Ko, 15, won the CN Canadian Women’s Open to become the youngest winner in LPGA Tour history.
Also playing in the CN Canadian Women’s Open was then-14-year-old Brooke Mackenzie Henderson, who also made history that week by becoming the youngest competitor in the history of that national championship. Appropriately, she qualified for the championship by breaking a record that Ko had set several months previously.
In January, Ko was just 14 when she won an event on the Australian Ladies Professional Golf Tour to become the youngest player to win a professional golf tour event. In June, Henderson won an event on the CN Canadian Women’s Tour to earn an exemption into the Women’s Open.
As 2013 begins, Henderson, who turned 15 on Sept. 10, continues to take on older players at the Copa de las Americas, where she shot 71 in the first round at Doral Golf Resort & Spa Miami’s TPC Blue Monster before slipping to a 77 in the second round. Still, her scores have helped Canada to both the overall lead and a tie for the lead in the women’s division of the team competition at the halfway point.
“She has an amazing game for her age,” said her fellow-competitor, Colombia’s Laura Blanco. “She hits the ball so far. She had a tough day today, but she will come back.”
Even on a frustrating day in which she missed several short putts for par, Henderson’s personality on the course is one of intense competitive spirit, whether lining up a putt or striding down the fairway.
“I love the competition,” said Henderson, who also won the Canadian Junior championship and an AJGA event in 2012. “There’s always a new challenge to face. I love it.”
From a solid base provided by a wide stance that calls to mind another Canadian, legendary ball-striker Moe Norman, Henderson has a powerful swing that produces long drives.
Not surprisingly, Henderson’s favorite part of the game is playing off the tee. On the 374-yard 17th hole, Henderson hit a drive that was 20 yards longer than that of Blanco, a junior at Arizona State, and left an approach of less than 100 yards.
These kinds of shots have enabled her to win numerous regional and junior events over the past several years.
“She’s pretty much ahead of the curve in terms of competitive results, but she still has some developing there,” said Canadian captain Robert Ratcliffe. “For her to play at a world-class level, she’s going to have to do a lot of learning over the next few years.”
But Henderson won’t be alone in her road to improvement; she has the backing of Team Canada, which helps develop the country’s elite amateur golfers. Henderson and her teammates at the Copa de las Americas – Augusta James, Albin Choi and Corey Conner – are or have been Team Canada members.
This elite team is the peak of a nationwide development program that Golf Canada instituted several years ago to help attract and retain young golfers.
“We did some studies, and we found that an overwhelming number of golfers were leaving the game,” said Ratcliffe, Team Canada’s assistant coach. “We’re making efforts to develop and offer programs that hit six or seven stages of development. And at each stage, the idea is that we’re capturing golfers for life, even if they’re not becoming competitive players.”
After meeting criteria along this development path, national team members benefit from numerous support mechanisms: swing coaches, nutritionists, conditioning experts, sports psychologists. The coaches travel to tournaments throughout the season to assist team members.
“We had a lot of resources, a lot of coaching,” said Choi, a former Team Canada member. “It’s helped me a lot over the years.”
While the national team members are normally 18 or older, there is always a place for phenoms like Henderson, and the nationwide program is effective at identifying talent. Finding Brooke was relatively easy for Team Canada; her older sister, Brittany, now a senior at Coastal Carolina University, was a member of the junior team.
“We knew Brooke since she was quite young,” said Ratcliffe. “We watched her get started in junior golf. Brooke is from a small town in Ontario, so she has had access to the kind of expertise she normally wouldn’t have had.”
In addition to year-round coaching and training, Team Canada helps formulate players’ schedules and identify tournaments and championships to best suit their needs. For example, the Copa de last Americas is a developmental tool for Henderson, not just a competition.
“We’re giving her the opportunity to access world-class events,” said Ratcliffe. “We really believe that’s a big factor in developing athletes. Having them exposed to Lindy Duncan, Erynne Lee, and players like that – although they’re competing, they’re learning a lot from those players and learning a lot from each other.”
While the elite players are exposed to the best competition, the Canadian program also offers appropriate tournaments at different levels. That way, players have an opportunity to achieve success, which is a key component of developing young players, according to noted teacher Jim McLean, who is based at Doral. McLean cites the example of his student, Alexis Thompson, who won the U.S. Girls’ Junior as a 13-year-old and won an LPGA Tour event at the age of 16 – the record at the time.
“She lifted a lot of trophies,” said McLean. “She knows how to win, and when it comes down to the end of the tournament, she knew what to do.”
Henderson has a similar competitive bent, in addition to a quality that no program can instill, at any age.
“Brooke has an unbelievable passion for golf,” said Ratcliffe. “That passion has led her to achieve some great things at such a young age.”
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Contact him at email@example.com.