Calm and steady, this golf professional is a fellow Canadian
At the hospitality tent, we pick up cold drinks at the bar, then settle into blue Muskoka chairs with a superb view of the 8th green. The sun shines brightly, but it’s not too hot here at the Hilton Grand Vacations LPGA tournament. Our hosts’ Lake Nona house is adjacent to the 11th tee, so Eric and I casually wander over to join the gallery of spectators. Those from outside this gated community near Orlando had to park elsewhere and take a bus in, so we’re really lucky.
It’s Day One of a four-day Tournament of Champions 2023. Each group consists of one LPGA champion who won a tournament in the last two years and two celebrities/amateurs. The latter group is mostly male and includes NFL, NBA, MLB players, and entertainers, like a comedian named Larry the Cable Guy. We read who’s playing in each tee group on our phones but don't recognize anybody in person.
Finding Our Star
Having frequently heard Brooke Henderson’s name in sports reports and Canadian Athlete of the Year announcements, I know she is accomplished but have no idea what she looks like. We’re at the 8th green expressly to find Brooke, basing our estimate of her arrival on her tee time.
After refreshing my soda water, I stroll back to Eric and he points excitedly saying, “Look! There she is.”
Sure enough, an athletic young lady wearing her hair in a blonde ponytail stands just off the
green contemplating her next shot. She wears a pale pink short sleeved golf shirt, white arm protectors, white visor, and black capri pants.
Carrying an enormous red, white, and black TaylorMade golf bag, her caddy has her hair in a
darker blonde ponytail, and wears a white tunic emblazoned with “Hilton Grand Vacations” on the front and “HENDERSON” on the back. We eventually learn that’s her older sister Brittany.
“Isn’t this cool?” I gush quietly. She’s only a few yards away from us.
A huge crowd of onlookers stands obediently behind a rope opposite our vantage point. Two other
golfers with caddies come into view, and a blue-shirted volunteer carries a square sign displaying the names and current scores of this group. The red 5 beside “Henderson” indicates that she is currently 5 strokes under par…not bad for having played only 7 holes! The other numbers on the sign are black,
meaning the other two are over par.
When each golfer prepares to hit their ball, two more volunteers stand facing the onlookers and raise both arms – holding a sign saying “QUIET.” After the ball is struck, they lower their arms, and the chatter begins again.
We decide to join the crowd following Brooke and hurry over to the paved path. Just a few yards away we arrive at the 9th tee and see Brooke and Brittany waiting their turn, so I take the photo shown above.
After she tees up, I take a short video of her drive, thrilled to capture her power and grace from
only a few yards away. Her ball’s trajectory is as long and straight as you’d expect it to be. Others film too. The crowd following her progress is the biggest we’ve seen at this tournament, some wearing small Canadian flags on their shirts – and then there’s a fellow with “Brooke’s Brigade” emblazoned on
Quietly respectful spectators keep their distance by walking from tee to green on a path separated from the golfers, caddies, and other event personnel by a rope. Their only noise is polite applause when a golfer makes a great shot, which is virtually every time they take a stroke.
The silence at the 9th green is impressive, especially as it’s also the site of a hospitality tent where ticket holders can consume alcoholic drinks.
Because each LPGA participant is accompanied by two non-professional players, the overall pace of play is slow and we are getting hungry. We stroll back to our hosts' for some sustenance. Afterwards, I head out alone to the 16th green to wait for Brooke again.
Watching on the 17th
I’m lucky enough to have played Lake Nona many times, so it’s fun to see this remarkable talent face the same challenges I’ve played myself – though my last round was in 2019…the four-year being gap due to the pandemic.
The 17th hole is a par 3 towards Lake Nona. I position myself on a wooden walkway that runs beside the fairway. The first golfer in Brooke's group makes a wild shot which heads towards me. Somebody
yells “Fore!” so I naturally jump out of its way. The ball lands in a bog about 15 feet beyond my portable stool – irretrievable.
Brooke’s tee shot is lovely, but later I allow myself a moment of secret pride when she bogies this hole. I recall having parred it. This is just the first day of the tournament, so she’ll have three more chances to tie me.
Endnote: According to the Leaderboard, Canadian Brooke Henderson shot 67, 66, 69, 70 to finish -16. She won $225,000 USD. Tied in second place at -12 were Swedish Maja Stark and British Charley Hull.