Brooke Henderson in familiar position as she looks to defend KPMG Women's PGA

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Brooke Henderson in familiar position as she looks to defend KPMG Women's PGA

LPGA Tour

Brooke Henderson in familiar position as she looks to defend KPMG Women's PGA

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. – If Brooke Henderson weren’t trying to win a major championship, she’d be at the family cottage outside of Smiths Falls, Ontario, having a bonfire with her cousins by the lake. On a day when Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, one of the country’s most celebrated athletes worked to position herself for a second major title.

One year ago, Henderson overcame a three-stroke deficit on the back nine at Sahalee Country Club to win her first major championship in a playoff. At age 19, she’s in position to do it once more at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Henderson carded a third-round 69 July 1 to trail leaders Chella Choi and Danielle Kang by three strokes.

“You know, with a major championship, really it comes down to the back nine on Sunday,” said the mature Henderson.

The feeling will be new for Choi and Kang, who have yet to play in the final group on Sunday at a major. Kang, a two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champion, was hoping to find herself in such a position on Sunday.

On Saturday, Kang was paired in the final group with Sei Young Kim, whom she lost to at the Lorena Ochoa Match Play event in May. Kang said in her mind she played match play against Kim at Olympia Fields.

“I really wanted to be tied for the lead tomorrow,” said Kang, “just so that I could just play my game and just stay aggressive just like match play.”

Kang got up-and-down from a greenside bunker on the 18th hole to tie Choi at 10-under 203. Winless in six seasons on the LPGA, Kang only recently learned how to put less emphasis on hoisting a trophy. The lack of self-inflicted pressure might be the reason she’s in prime position. Her last stroke-play title came at the 2010 Bruin Wave Invitational at Pepperdine.

“Just go win it,” hockey great Wayne Gretzky texted Kang early on Saturday.

Kang noted to her friend and mentor that it was only Round 3. Perhaps he’ll copy and paste it for Sunday.

Choi, 26, won for the first time on the LPGA in 2015 at the Marathon Classic in her 157th start. The fun fact about Choi during that stretch was that her father couldn’t retire as her caddie until she won on the LPGA. Needless to say, it was a long wait for the retired police officer.

Ji Yeon is back though after Chella said she lost confidence. This marks his 10th year on the bag.

There’s another thing Choi is known for, though it’s not as lighthearted. At the 2014 Canadian Pacific, Choi was assessed a penalty for incorrectly marking her ball on a short putt in the first round. Despite clear video evidence, Choi disagreed with the penalty and withdrew from the tournament.

Because of what happened to Lexi Thompson at the ANA Inspiration, Choi was asked about the incident in Canada at the KPMG.

“I felt very bad for Lexi as an athlete,” said Choi. “But also, that incident helped me realize and helped me learn, that I need to be more – play more as a model athlete and have more model behavior.”

Lurking behind Kang and Choi is two-time major winner Jiyai Shin, who left the LPGA in 2014 to compete in Japan. Shin trails by two strokes at 8 under. The 11-time LPGA winner has won 10 times in Japan since moving there.
Thompson sits five strokes back at 5 under with fellow major winners Michelle Wie and World No. 1 So Yeon Ryu.

Henderson received a sponsor’s invite to the 2015 KPMG and found herself in the lead right from the start. She finished in a tie for fifth in her debut and then returned in 2016 as an LPGA member and won in a playoff against Lydia Ko.

Despite her age, Henderson has already successfully defended a title on the LPGA. She won the Cambia Portland Classic in 2015 as a Monday-qualifier and then followed it up with victory in 2016.

Henderson’s older sister Brittany, who is both her caddie and best friend, said Brooke hasn’t changed much as a player since winning her first major championship. She’s the same aggressive, mentally strong powerhouse who knows how to embrace big moments.

“Sometimes it’s easy to view pressure as a negative,” said Brittany, “but I think if you can ride that energy, ride that high, then it’s good.”

The only thing that has changed, Brittany said, is that Brooke has grown more patient. That came this spring when she felt like her game was close, but couldn’t get enough putts to fall to contend.

That changed two weeks ago at the Meijer LPGA Classic, when Henderson collected her fourth LPGA title.

“I think I kind of proved to some of the naysayers, and proved to myself, that I am in a great position,” said Henderson at the start of the week.

Fifty-four holes later, that statement holds true.

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