PINEHURST — At some point soon Brooke Mackenzie Henderson will need to finish preparing for her 11th grade final exams, which are next week, but this weekend might not offer much time for studying – not the way she’s playing in the U.S. Women’s Open.
Henderson, 16, on Thursday birdied three of her first nine holes and when she and her sister – her caddie this week – walked down the 10th fairway, Henderson’s name was atop the leader board, her score tied with Stacy Lewis. Off to the side of the fairway, Henderson’s mom, Darlene, watched and walked, looking a bit nervous.
She was happy, too. And proud.
“Awesome,” Darlene said at the thought of her daughter leading the Open. “Just awesome. I’m loving every second of it.”
Darlene Henderson found a shady spot and watched Brooke Mackenzie tee off on No. 11 – another long drive down the middle. She didn’t start playing competitive golf until she was 9 and yet here she was, seven years later, leading the most prestigious women’s golf tournament in the world.
Brittany Henderson, 23, allowed the moment to sink in. While she walked around the course toting her sister’s bag, she couldn’t help notice the leader boards.
“I got pumped,” said Brittany, who also caddied for her sister last year during the U.S. Women’s Open. “I don’t know about her. But I was excited. She’s really good. She’s young but she handles the pressure really well.
“She doesn’t really see it as pressure, I don’t think. She sees it as her versus the golf course, and she’s not really worried about where she stands or anything.”
Brooke Mackenzie, who grew up near Ottawa, admitted later there were some nerves.
“Especially on the first tee,” she said. “Everybody gets those, I think. But I’ve definitely become a lot more comfortable the last couple of LPGA events that I played in.”
She found the back nine more challenging because of the course and the heat. She finished 1-over par with a 71 – the same score as Lexi Thompson, one of the sport’s rising stars, and Juli Inkster, the seven-time major champion who is playing in her 35th, and final, U.S. Women’s Open.
After signing her scorecard and wiping away the sweat, Brooke Mackenzie tried to put this into perspective.
“It’s pretty cool,” she said. “Being up there closer to the leader board was definitely fun and hopefully I’ll put a good round together tomorrow and make the cut and then hopefully climb up the leader board on the weekend.”
Simply qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open, which Henderson did by finishing first in her sectional qualifier, wasn’t good enough. Henderson, ranked the No. 3 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, came to Pinehurst believing she could compete.
She finished 59th in the U.S. Women’s Open last year and then finished 35th in the Manulife Financial LPGA Classic.
Before that, when she was 14, she became the youngest player to win a professional event – a Canadian Tour tournament – and she also qualified for an LPGA tournament.
Brooke Mackenzie called it “pretty scary” – playing alongside professionals when she was 14.
“But now,” she said, “I love being out here and hopefully I’ll play on the LPGA Tour full-time some day.”
Henderson got her start in golf watching her older sister. Brittany laughs at the memory of Brooke Mackenzie following her around the course, trying to sneak onto driving ranges to hit balls.
Now, in a different way, Brooke Mackenzie is still following her sister. Brittany helped line up putts and offered no shortage of advice on Thursday – the kinds of things a caddie normally would do.
“I think we’re a good team out there,” Brittany said. “So I like to be on her bag and help her out.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter