PITTSFORD, N.Y. – That’s what friends are for?
On the surface, it had all the appearances of a cozy set of circumstances, but J.J. Henry said it was just happenstance. More than how he got into the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club – with the withdrawal of his friend, mentor and sometimes caddie, Mark Brooks – Henry was still surprised that he had sat on the outside for so long.
“It was hard to believe that no one withdrew before now and last Wednesday,” Henry said. “You know the top 70 (get in), but (that list) usually goes to 80.”
All that aside, Henry was pleased to have been told at about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday that his patient wait had been rewarded. He could make plans to officially tee it up in his eighth PGA Championship. Brooks, the 1996 PGA winner, called Henry a short time later to confirm that it was his withdrawal that opened that spot.
That part of the conversation taken care of, Brooks got to the important news: He was sticking around and would meet Henry over at the putting green.
“He’s taken me under his wing. He has helped me quite a bit,” said Henry, 38. “He was a gritty competitor, a good chipper and putter, and good around the green. I try and take a lot of what he’s taught me around the green.”
Brooks, 52, a seven-time Tour winner – the most recent one being his playoff over Kenny Perry at Valhalla in that PGA Championship 17 years ago – is a regular on the Champions Tour and 64th on the money list. There’s a big stretch of play coming up, he underwent surgery on his left knee 2 1/2 months ago, “and he wasn’t feeling great,” Henry said. Still, Henry never gave much thought to Brooks’ status, and they never talked about it.
“Honestly, I still thought I was going to get in, when you look at past history (and see how far down the list goes),” Henry said.
Having played a few practice rounds at Oak Hill, Henry met Brooks on the putting green for a session that lasted for more than an hour. Given that there is a golden rule to playing Oak Hill’s greens – keep it below the hole – Brooks had Henry putting 20-to-30-footers up a slope, and they constantly talked about speed, about the need to find the correct pace.
A series of those putts handled, Brooks then instructed Henry to the other side of the ball, for the ticklish 1- and-2 footers that will face competitors all week.
“You got a problem with that putt?” Brooks said as he pointed to a slick 2-footer downhill.
Henry smiled, stood over the putt – and jammed it wide right.
Brooks pulled his hat over his eyes, then both of them laughed and returned to work for another round of uphill rolls and downhill sliders.
In the past, at the Players Championship and the Byron Nelson, Brooks has caddied for Henry. That won’t be the case this week – Henry will have regular caddie Don Donatello on the bag – but the former major winner is passionate about his friendship and mentorship to the one-time standout at TCU.
“He wanted to be here and play,” Henry said, “and I’d still like to see him play at least one more PGA.”
Next year when the major moves to Valhalla would be the most logical stop, but that’s well down the road. For now, Brooks seemed more content on getting Henry in a better place on the eve of the season’s final major. Taking breaks from their putting session, Henry listened to Brooks’ advice and some tips on visual drills, then back to work they went.
Though he sat atop the alternate list for more than five days, “I prepared like I was going to play. That’s why I got here Monday,” Henry said.
Never did he wonder if his friend’s knee would force him out of the lineup. “You never wish that on anyone.”
Instead, Henry focused on a little historical intrigue at work here. In his final tournament before turning pro, the 1998 U.S. Amateur, Henry was scratchy in the 36-hole stroke-play portion and barely survived a playoff to make match play.
“Ironic,” he said. “I was the last one slipping in the (match-play) field that week, and here I am 15 years later, the last guy to slip in the field.”
He won twice that year before losing to the eventual runner-up, Tom McKnight, in the Round of 16. “This place has a lot of nice memories for me,” Henry said.
It’s been a strange year for Henry, the 13th-year pro. There have been some strong finishes – T-13 at the Hyundai, T-5 at the Travelers, T-7 at the John Deere – but nine missed cuts and a lot of middle-of-the-pack finishes in 23 starts. Still, he ranks 96th in the FedEx Cup standings and 108th in money ($719,006), numbers he hopes to improve. This week could go a long way in doing that, which is why Henry seemed relieved.
“I’m grateful to be in the field. It’s my fault for putting myself in this position,” said Henry, whose entry leaves Jeff Overton as the first alternate. “I don’t want to say I’m relieved, but I’m fired up, like I have nothing to lose.”