Canadians expect an awful lot out of Brooke Henderson.
When she tees it up on the LPGA Tour, she’s expected to win. When she plays in the Olympics, anything less than a medal is a disappointment.
In golf – truthfully, in practically any sport – anticipating victory in any event is about as reasonable as a groundhog’s shadow predicting weather patterns. Occasionally, by pure luck, the rodent might be right, but it isn’t because it had some insight into meteorology.
But heading into the Olympic Games in Tokyo there were expectations for the Canadians, and it didn’t seem entirely unreasonable. The two male golfers going to the games, Corey Conners and Mackenzie Hughes, were in the midst of successful seasons and on leaderboards in recent major championships. Sure, Alena Sharp, 152nd on the world ranking, wasn’t exactly having a stunning year, but Henderson is the seventh-ranked female golfer on the planet. And being in the top 10 puts you in the mix wherever you’re playing.
Never mind that Henderson has averaged slightly more than a win a year since turning pro. While that makes her remarkably successful by professional golf standards, it is hardly an indication of victory every time she tees it up.
And, if you look at the numbers, Henderson isn’t having a particularly great year by her own lofty standards. She has five top-10 finishes, including a win, which is slightly behind her typical pace. And her putting, never a strength and always a difficult stat to maintain, is well down this year. She ranked 128th on the LPGA Tour in putting on the way into the Olympics. Like many great golfers, Henderson’s success comes to how she rolls the rock.
None of that kept Canadian pundits, many of whom pay very little attention to golf, from listing Henderson as a favourite heading into the games, right next to swimming superstar Penny Oleksiak and runner Andre De Grasse.
Canada focuses its expectation on our top golfers – in recent years mainly Henderson – simply because it can’t be spread among several of the best players. There’s Brooke, and then there’s everyone else.
But golf isn’t the same as other Olympic sports. Few can peak for key events. Rather, playing professional golf is about having a handful of great weeks through the course of more than 25 events. Win once a year and you’re a star. Heck, you can have a handful of top-10s a year on the men’s tour and spend your time flying around on private jets.
Few have experienced this, but Mike Weir understands. Now 51, and nearing 20 years removed from his career highs, Weir vividly recalls showing up at the RBC Canadian Open and dealing with the anticipation that he’d pull the rabbit out of the hat every time he stepped onto Canadian soil. Weir admits he doesn’t know Henderson well, but he understands the pressure of having the eyes of a country on you.
“I don’t know exactly how to word it,” he says. “Maybe there’s just an extra weight on you. Different personalities handle it in different ways. I hope I handled it well, but I know that wasn’t always the case.”
American golfers don’t feel the same pressure. There’s simply more of them at the top levels of the game, so the pressure is dispersed. In women’s golf, the United States had four players in the Olympic field, as was the case for South Korea. Canada doesn’t have the same luxury of success at the game’s highest levels. That means all eyes are focused on a few.
Adding to that is the fact U.S. golfers, whether at their national championships or the Olympics, don’t have the weight of the expectation of an entire country on their shoulders. Canada focuses its expectation on our top golfers – in recent years mainly Henderson – simply because it can’t be spread among several of the best players. There’s Brooke, and then there’s everyone else.
Few golfers can understand the situation, Weir says. But he points to Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama as one who can. Matsuyama, Japan’s great homegrown hope in the Games, faded in the final round of men’s golf with the host country holding out hope that he’d find his short game in time to make the podium. It didn’t happen.
Henderson has been through this before. At the last Olympics, where golf made its return after a century away, she also was hotly tipped for a medal. She came short, finishing in a tie for seventh.
In the end, this year’s Olympic struggles once again were the result of Henderson’s balky putter. She stumbled in the first round, blaming her woes on her putting, and even though she righted the ship somewhat, Henderson went into the final round 15 shots behind the leader and 10 shots out of a medal position.
Henderson has age on her side. At 23, she could well have plenty of opportunities to head to future Olympic Games. Maybe in coming years she’ll find a way to make her short game match her world-class ballstriking. Or perhaps that’s something she’ll never fully control, like so many before her, making Henderson another story of what might have been possible.
Conners and Hughes never contended at the Tokyo Olympics, and it was much the same for Henderson and Sharp. Some will claim it is a disappointment.
Others, more rightfully, will say that’s just the nature of the game.
Top: Brooke Henderson and her sister/caddie, Brittany, couldn't plot a medal run at Kasumigaseki Country Club.