Armed with a fresh putting style, renewed confidence, and a laser-like focus on topping one of the best fields in women’s golf, Brooke Henderson comes to the first major championship of the LPGA Tour season riding high.
Henderson was part of the final-round drama that came down to the wire at last year’s ANA Inspiration – it's back in its normal spot on the schedule for 2021 – but since she fell just short, losing in a playoff to Mirim Lee, she’s hoping to extract a little revenge this week in Palm Desert.
“I think it's really important to take away the positives from that week because I played really well and there's a lot of good things that happened,” said Henderson via media conference in California. “Unfortunately, I didn't lift the trophy, but I was tied for the lead when we finished 72 holes. So there’s a lot of confidence and that's a great feeling.”
The ANA Inspiration moved to the fall in 2020 due to COVID-19 precautions. Henderson was playing well over the first two days but shot 65 on Saturday to earn a spot in the final group on Sunday. She and Nelly Korda – the No.4-ranked golfer in the world – both finished at 15-under alongside Lee, who had chipped in twice on the back nine earlier in the day.
Lee birdied the first playoff hole and after Henderson missed a seven-foot birdie try of her own, it was over.
While Henderson is Canada’s winningest golfer of all time (at just 23 she’s already won nine times on the LPGA Tour) it’s been her putting that has held her back from having even more success. That playoff was a perfect example.
She said Tuesday from California that she’s switched to a left-land low putting style for putts under 10 feet. She started that last week at the Kia Classic, where she finished T10, and will continue it at the year’s first major.
“That was a big change for me. But I feel really comfortable with it and I think I'll keep it going,” said Henderson of her grip change.
In weeks where she does struggle, she’ll lose her confidence and her putting is the first thing to go, she said. Her confidence on the greens is coming back, and whenever she’s won, it is her putting that’s made the difference.
Unfortunately for Henderson, though, she hasn’t had that extra set of eyes to advise on how her stroke – or swing – is looking. Given the border restrictions Henderson’s father Dave (who is also her coach) hasn’t been on site at an event since January 2020. He’s a fixture at almost all of Henderson’s wins, and certainly an important part of her development as a golfer.
Without her father working with her in person, it’s been her sister (and caddy) Brittany who has stepped into the coach role, too.
“He's always there, like virtually, always helping us out and sending us his notes that he has on every course and FaceTiming and everything. It's been okay. Definitely miss having my mom and him out here, to show support and helping out on the course,” said Henderson.
While Henderson has those nine wins to her credit, she has captured just one major championship. She’s been in the mix often enough, however, with 16 top-20 finishes in her career in majors, including two top-10's a year ago. She said she enjoys the challenge that major championship setups bring – even admitting when she plays a course shorter and easier than most, it’s easy for her to lose focus.
“There’s definitely more pressure on major championship weeks,” said Henderson.
Due to COVID-19 protocols there will not be any fans this week at the ANA Inspiration, usually a hotbed for Canadians on spring break. Henderson said she’d miss the energy and excitement those crowds bring, especially during a major – joking that if she makes a birdie this week, Brittany will instead need to get a little more excited on the fans’ behalf.
The birdies will be tricky to come by, however, as Henderson said it’ll take a lot to adjust back to how the golf course normally plays. Last year the golf course played different since the event occurred about six months later in the year than normal. Now, Henderson said, the greens are playing more on the firmer side and the temperature is rising.
“I'm hoping to take some of the things I learned last year and all the things I learned since I started playing this event in 2014 as an amateur and hopefully I can use all that knowledge and just perform well,” said Henderson.
More than anything, Henderson said she’s hopeful for a quick start on Thursday. While the playoff loss from a year ago stings a little, she’s got a little inspiration and a little momentum even, coming into this week.
“It's just the best feeling to be in contention on a major championship on Sunday afternoon, you know, playing against the best in the world on great golf courses, and just to have that feeling of adrenaline and that rush of energy coming down the stretch is always great,” said Henderson.
“I definitely think having won a major championship, it makes the nerves a little bit better. But they are always to be there, and you just want the opportunity. That's all I'm hoping for.”