GLEN COVE, N.Y. – The finalists of the U.S. Women’s Amateur are both 16 years old but, in many ways, the similarities end there.
Kristen Gillman of Austin, Texas, is enjoying the best summer of her life. She’s hot off a record-setting victory at the Junior PGA and making her debut in this championship. Safe to say no one would’ve predicted that Gillman would be in Sunday’s 36-hole finale.
Brooke Mackenzie Henderson, however, was among the favorites to start the week. While Gillman is ranked No. 2 in the Golfweek junior rankings, Henderson is No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and No. 1 in Golfweek’s amateur rankings. She’s already a winner of three professional titles on the Canadian Women’s Tour.
Gillman proudly wore her Alabama hat and shirt in Saturday’s semifinal. She’ll be headed there in 2016. Henderson, meanwhile, has had a Gators head cover on her bag since elementary school but no one expects her to actually fulfill that commitment to Florida. Some players don’t need college golf (maybe one per class), and Henderson fits that bill. She nearly wins every tournament she enters, except for LPGA majors, and even then she’s impressive.
“If she gets pushed,” said Henderson’s father, Dave, “she goes to a different level.”
From an early age, Henderson tried to imitate older sister Brittany. While they’re six and a half years apart, the two blondes are of similar build and often mistaken for twins. Brooke goes by all three of her names because it was too confusing having two B. Hendersons in every field.
“It’s weird to find a little kid who doesn’t mind tagging along,” said Brittany of those early years, “but she loved it and would try to sneak out on the range. One time she got kicked off.”
Brittany, a Coastal Carolina grad who will attend LPGA Q-School later this month, is Brooke’s regular caddie at big events.
The younger sis developed her strong lower body and tough approach from her years as a hockey goalie. She could’ve been on national teams for both golf and hockey if time and money allowed.
“Brooke’s always been special at every level,” said Dave.
No matter the sport.
Dave and Darlene Henderson grew up three blocks from each other in Smiths Falls, Ontario, about an eight-hour drive from Long Island. They moved away for college and then returned to Smiths Falls to raise a family.
“I’ve been going out with Darlene since grade eight or nine,” Dave said.
Darlene noted that he picked her to be on his baseball team in grade six.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said smiling.
They’re walking outside the ropes this week along with Dave’s brother and his wife and a couple family friends. Also in the gallery is Golf Canada’s national coach, Tristan Mullally, an Irishman who has served as Henderson’s swing coach the last three years.
Mullally estimates that he sees the five players on Canada’s national team at least 100 days a year. Golf Canada spends about $65,000 per player on travel and support each year. They have monthly training sessions.
Henderson has a team trainer, nutritionalist, mental coach and swing coach at her disposal. This week Mullally, who counts Pete Cowen as a mentor, has worked with Henderson on her short game and course strategy. It wasn’t long ago he convinced her to stop drinking Sprite mid-round.
Henderson, whose strength is her ball-striking, has played several terrific shots around the greens these last two days. She got off to a slow start against Hannah O’Sullivan, but eventually wore her down with steady play, winning 1 up. O’Sullivan, 16, played the back nine in 3 over.
“I made a lot of shots that even when I was saying like, ‘Get it within 10 feet and just try and make the putt,’ I was able to squeeze it inside 5 feet,” said Henderson, “made it a lot easier on myself and even added a little more pressure on Hannah.”
Henderson and Gillman met each other for the first time in the locker room this week. Gillman, who carried her own bag in the first round of stroke-play qualifying, called her father back into action after good friend and championship medalist Bethany Wu had to fly home.
Gillman, a rising junior at Lake Travis High School, said her mom was hosting a viewing party at their home today for her high school golf team.
“There’s probably about seven of them there,” said Gillman, who put on quite a show for family and friends.
Gillman’s road to the finals included a couple of college hotshots in Duke’s Celine Boutier and Casey Danielson of Stanford as well as Su-Hyun Oh, an Australian teen who heads to Q-School this fall.
In the semifinals, Gillman faced Golfweek’s top-ranked junior, Andrea Lee.
While they made the turn at all square, it was a different story on the back nine. Lee, 15, got off track with five bogeys in six holes.
Gillman, who roared back from a 4-hole deficit in the quarterfinals, made sure Lee didn’t do the same by making birdie on the 14th hole to get back to 4 up.
Gillman’s 4-and-3 victory gives her a chance to become the second consecutive player wearing the Crimson Tide logo to win this championship.
“It feels awesome,” said Gillman. “Coming into this week (a chance) is all you wanted, so it feels great to accomplish that.”
She’ll face an uphill climb against Henderson, winner of the 2013 Canadian Amateur and South American Amateur. The last Canadian player to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur was Cathy Sherk in 1978. Only seven Canadians have won USGA titles.
Sunday will be Henderson’s first 36-hole final.
“I think it’s good so that someone doesn’t get hot the first 18 holes,” said Henderson. “I think it allows the better player to really come out in the end.”