Brooke Henderson just needed an opportunity. A chance to show the world that she had the talent and the game to compete among the greatest players in women’s golf. Four years ago, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship gave her the break she was waiting for.
It was 2015. The 17-year-old Canadian’s petition to the LPGA commissioner to join the Tour was denied due to her age. Instead, Henderson spent each week trying to earn a spot in the field through Monday qualifiers.
But Henderson had two more paths to try and join the Tour. She could earn membership by winning or earning enough money to finish inside the top 40 on the Tour’s money list. But she was going to need a little help if she was going to get into the events with the biggest purses, which also happened to be major championships.
In June, when the Tour headed to Westchester Country Club for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Henderson had already found her way into the field at six LPGA Tour events. And she was making an impact. Henderson nearly won in San Francisco where she settled for a third-place finish after a final round 74. But she rebounded immediately. She hopped a plane to Texas where she Monday qualified for the Tour’s next event and finished just outside the top 10. Henderson’s success caught the attention of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, which granted her a sponsor’s exemption. It was the first time Henderson would compete as a professional in a major championship.
“Every time playing on the LPGA Tour, especially when I'm close to the top, I think I learn a lot about my tendencies and where I can improve to get a little bit better score the next time,” Henderson said in 2015. “I've learned a lot the last couple weeks.”
The teen didn’t take lightly the opportunity she had been given. The gesture meant more than just a tee time, but a vote of confidence to the young pro who was determined to capitalize on her big break. She converted the invitation into a top 5 finish.
“The tournament was a huge stepping stone for me,” Henderson said. “And tied fifth, that's pretty cool. Definitely moving forward, I have a lot that I can take away.”
Henderson carried that momentum into the U.S. Women’s Open where she notched another top 5 and later that year captured her first win at the Cambia Portland Classic, which earned her membership on the LPGA Tour. The towering pines at Clearwater Country Club made the Canadian feel right at home as she cruised to her first victory on Tour.
In 2016, Henderson returned to the Pacific Northwest for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, where she found a similar layout to the one she conquered in Portland. Sahalee Country Club played host to the major championship, where the week seemed to belong to Henderson from the start. Thursday, the Canadian recorded a hole-in-one during the opening round for her first ace on Tour. Sunday, the 18-year-old went head to head with Lydia Ko, the top ranked player in the world at the time, who she defeated in a playoff to win the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship for her first major title.
“I was feeding off the energy I had last year at KPMG,” Henderson said. “Coming into this week I had really good vibes and I loved Sahalee Country Club.”
Henderson’s victory was a historic one. She became the youngest winner of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and second youngest player to win a major championship on the LPGA Tour.
“That's amazing to think about all of the incredible players that have come before me,” Henderson said about her record-breaking victory. “And even I was reading some of the names on this trophy and it's very, very cool.”
Year after year, Henderson’s gratitude for that first major opportunity is reflected in her performance at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. In 2017 at Olympia Fields Country Club, she came up inches shy of victory on the 72nd hole when her putt stopped just a revolution short of the hole and she settled for second. In 2018 at Kemper Lakes Golf Club, Henderson held a share of the 36-hole lead before finishing T6 for the week. In June, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship heads north once again, this time to Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota. Half of Henderson’s eight victories on Tour have come in cooler climates.
“I love this championship,” Henderson said. “I think that’s something so amazing about this major championship is that we play the best golf courses, and ones that the men have previously played.”
Henderson heads to Hazeltine ranked inside the top 10 in the world with more than a half a dozen wins to her name. It’s hard to imagine a time when Henderson wasn’t part of the golfing landscape, but in the span of just four years the 21-year-old has evolved from Monday qualifier, to LPGA Tour winner, to major champion - all on the heels of one special opportunity.
“Being a major champion and especially so young at 18-years-old, it really has boosted my career,” Henderson said. “[It] changed a lot of things in my life, but all for the better.”