Major Champ looking to Triumph at Olympic Club
When the first tee shot is struck at Olympic Club, marking the start of the 76th edition of the U.S. Women’s Open, there will be 155 competitors chasing glory. For some, that glory will be victory and hoisting the trophy on Sunday, for others it will be more modest, looking to make the cut to play the weekend with scenic San Francisco as the backdrop. For Brooke Henderson, the goal is very much the former – hoisting the trophy as the winner.
This is Henderson’s 9th appearance at the U.S. Women’s Open, with her first coming in 2013 at the age of 15. In 2014, when Michelle Wie stood on the 18th green to hoist the trophy at Pinehurst, a younger Henderson stood next to her with a medal presented to her in recognition as low amateur that year. Her best finishes in the annual championship included a T-10 in 2014 and a T-5 the following year in 2015. She hasn’t cracked the Top 10 since, with a T-13 in 2017 being the closest that she has come. Last year at Champions Club in Houston, she finished T-44th and T -39th at Charleston, South Carolina in 2019.
For such a prodigious talent such as Henderson, it is somewhat bewildering that a 10-time winner on the LPGA has not been able to contend more often in a setup that should favour her. U.S. Open course set-ups typically include narrower fairways with punishing rough alongside, with green complexes that are guarded by bunkers. The greens are usually very quick, often with a speed rating of over 11 or 12 on the stimpmeter. The keys to playing well and scoring well require precision shot-making, driving the ball well of the tee, finding plenty of fairways and avoiding the penal rough
Henderson is one of the best drivers of the golf ball in women’s golf. She is perennially near the top of the LPGA in Driving Distance – this year, she is ranked 5th with a driving average of 278.8 yards. But she is not wild off of the tee either as she maintains excellent control of her golf ball, finding 76% of the fairways. That means 3 out of every 4 tee shots finds the fairway, and coupled with her distance, she is often in a very good scoring position.
Her approach game is even better and again, she is perennially near the top of the LPGA in hitting "Greens in Regulation" — (GIR), with her lowest percentage being 74% in 2019. Last year she finished second overall at 77% of GIRs; this year she is even better, averaging an astounding 80% of greens in regulation.
That means she is hitting 8 out of every 10 greens either on her first shot when it is a par 3 or her second shot when it’s a par 4 hole. When a player finds that many “Greens in Regulation” that means plenty of putts for birdies, so it is no surprise that Henderson is usually near the top of the category in making birdies. With this kind of distance and accuracy, Henderson should be one of the favourites to win every time she steps on the course.
The informal rule of thumb when it comes to the set-up is for par to be a good score every day. The course set-up is intended to identify the best player that week, and be a stern, but fair test of golf. It sounds very much like the U.S. Women’s Open should be a course that sets up nicely for Henderson. It is a sentiment that she agrees with.
“It's definitely a monster. It's going to be really challenging, very tough, a premium to hit a lot of fairways and hopefully a lot of greens as well. I feel like it's definitely a ball striker's golf course. Staying patient and being resilient when you run into trouble.
“Normally ball striking is a strength of mine, which I think is good. I think you kind of have to be prepared for everything, all the challenges. That's exactly what a U.S. Women's Open should do – should test you physically and mentally, and you should be drained at the end of the week.”
There is an old adage attributed to Bobby Jones, about the importance of mental preparation and attitude in golf: “Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.” At the professional level in which Henderson toils, there is not too much difference between the players skill-wise, and so it often becomes the “mental awareness and approach” of the players that separates the “wheat from the chaff”.
Having a strong mental outlook about golf and the trials and tribulations that come with it, is vital for success. There will be plenty of adversity and setbacks in golf, so a good frame of mind is important for success. A major championship amplifies that importance even more and can lead to mental mistakes amongst the best players. Henderson is very aware of her own mental frame of mind and how to approach a difficult challenge like the one presented by Olympic Club.
“Any major championship, especially here at Olympic Club, this course is super challenging, and when you look back at the scores of the previous tournaments that have been held here, it's pretty eye opening to see that the winning score when you look back at the scores of the previous tournaments that have been held here, it's pretty eye opening to see that the winning score was plus one after four rounds. You're not used to that. So, it's a whole different mindset. Normally, you try to chase as many birdies as you can, whereas this week, honestly, I think you're trying to chase as many pars as you can . . . For me, I had to work on my mental game a little bit, and I feel like I'm continuing to do that, and it seems to be working out pretty well.”
Because of the stern test offered by Olympic Club, Henderson has approached this U.S. Women’s Open differently from others. Many holes are laid out so that they “dogleg” in one direction, while the fairway slopes away in the opposite direction. It makes it a challenge to keep the golf ball on the fairway, landing in the thick rough instead. And the rough not only adorns the fairways, it also adorns many of the green complexes. It is because of the particularly thick and sticky rough that Henderson has focused more on her short game than she would normally.
“I think just spending time in the rough and on the short game, because you're going to make mistakes at some point and you're going to have to get up and down and you're going to have to be very resilient. I think, when you run into trouble, just trying to not make your problems any worse and just play smart and hopefully make some clutch putts.”
In a U.S. Women’s Open that is full of storylines, the pursuit of another major championship by Brooke Henderson is one of the more compelling, and only the next four days of golf will tell us how well she prepared and even more importantly, how well she executed. Regardless, it will make for some equally compelling viewing this week.