Sports

LPGA

Brooke Henderson hopes to elevate her game in home province

By Mike Koreen, Toronto Sun

Brooke Henderson waves to the crowd after finishing her final round at the LPGA Canadian Open in Priddis, Alta., on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. (Leah Hennel/Postmedia Network)

Brooke Henderson waves to the crowd after finishing her final round at the LPGA Canadian Open in Priddis, Alta., on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2016. (Leah Hennel/Postmedia Network)

CAMBRIDGE, ONT. - 

Brooke Henderson got a big lift from the partisan fans last week at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in Calgary.

With a similar — if not more boisterous — reception expected this week much closer to home, the Smiths Falls, Ont., teen would love to find her A-game again to have a shot to return to the winner’s circle.

Henderson, 18, begins the second half of the LPGA Tour’s Canadian doubleheader on Thursday at the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic looking to regain the form that led to 11 top-10 finishes and two victories earlier this year. Without her best stuff, the world’s No. 3-ranked golfer managed a tie for 14th last week at the national championship.

“I just kind of built off their energy,” Henderson said during a packed news conference on Wednesday at Whistle Bear Golf Club. “I wasn’t playing my best, but I felt their support. I felt their positive vibe. I felt that and kind of ran with that. On Thursday or Friday, I guess, I was minus six at one point and that was all due to the crowds. I started to feel good about my game again. I started to find my groove ... (and) it was all because of the people there supporting me.

“At one point during the week, I turned to (sister/caddie Brittany Henderson) and I said ‘Imagine if I was leading.’ I was quite a few shots back from the lead, but still the crowd was all there.”

Balancing all the demands at home will be a huge factor for Henderson, who has played an LPGA-leading 85 rounds this year — and that doesn’t count four at the Olympics and another four on the European Tour, plus some other exhibition events.

On pro-am Wednesday, she couldn’t walk more than a few feet before being stopped for an autograph or selfie. Cameras surrounded the first tee for her opening shot of the pro-am.

“You know, it’s been a long season, I guess 23 or 24 events,” said Henderson, who will re-assess her schedule plan going into the 2017 season, but hasn’t finalized her plans.

“But there’s still lots of season left and lots of opportunities where I can get more top 10s. I can possibly win another event, which is really exciting for me. Especially being back home this week, it gives me that little bit of extra motivation to play well, to be at the top of the leaderboard.

“I kind of had some rough weeks leading up to the Olympics where my game wasn’t quite where I wanted it to be. When I had those two weeks off to play the Olympics, I tried to work really hard again. Then at the Olympics (where she finished two strokes off the podium) and last week in Calgary, I started to see my name back up there atop the leaderboard. It kind of gives me chills every time, but I love it and it kind of keeps me going.”

After missing the cut here by one stroke last year, Henderson hopes she has learned from the experience. Much has changed since then — when she was not even an LPGA member. Now she’s a three-time winner who is the clear star of the show at home — and one of the big names wherever the LPGA touches down.

Henderson still is looking for her first top-10 in a Canadian LPGA event — the tie for 14th last week marking her best showing in nine career events in her home country.

“I didn’t play my best here last year,” she said. “There was a lot of things going on for me. It was kind of a tougher week, but I still shot three under and ended up missing the cut by one just because the cut was extremely low.

“But coming back this year, I got to see nine holes of the course (on Tuesday). I really like it and I’ll be more aggressive than I was last year and chase after some more birdies and hopefully get some low scores.”

THAI GOLFER HAS DRIVE

CAMBRIDGE, Ont. — Ariya Jutanugarn hopes to showcase the drive of a champion this week.

In an effort to win for the sixth time this LPGA Tour season, the big-hitting Thai golfer is putting the driver back into her bag for the first time since May starting on Thursday at the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic at Whistle Bear Golf Club.

“I try to bring it out every week, but some courses I can’t hit my driver,” said the world’s second-ranked golfer, who is in the featured group with Canadian star Brooke Henderson for the first two rounds.

“But this course, I feel like it’s wide enough to hit driver. My distance, I’m not going to ... have a problem. All the trouble is not in my driver this week.”

Jutanugarn, 20, is 13th in driving distance on the LPGA Tour this year, despite rarely using her driver. She’s coming off a convincing win last week at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in Calgary, continuing a remarkable bounce-back season following a 2015 campaign that included 10 consecutive missed cuts.

“Last year, I really strained when I played golf,” she said. “When I grab my driver or grab my other club, I don’t want to (hit) the golf ball anymore. I started really scared last year.

“But this year to me, I’m really happy to play golf right now and really enjoy it. I can’t wait for (Thursday) to tee off with Brooke Henderson. I know we’re going to have fun on the course.”

mkoreen@postmedia.com

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