Brooke Henderson Is the Shining Star Her Hometown Smiths Falls Needed
Smiths Falls, Ontario, has long been known as a bad news town, plagued by high rates of unemployment. But local golf star Brooke Henderson keeps giving the town something to smile about.
Photo by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Smiths Falls has long been known as a bad news town.
It's an unfortunate way to describe a place as beautiful, quaint, and friendly as Smiths Falls—80 kilometres from Ottawa, on the shores of the Rideau River—but over the last decade or so, it's been the reality.
According to the most recent census, the population of Smiths Falls is less than 9,000 and the unemployment rate sits at nearly 10 percent, which is four percent higher than the provincial average.
After the Hershey's chocolate factory closed in 2010—former Mayor Dennis Staples said in 2013 that the town lost 1,700 jobs because of it shuttering up, nearly 20 percent of the population—it took three years for a tenant to move in.
And that tenant is Tweed Inc., a Canadian start-up that grows and distributes medical marijuana.
But for all the doom and gloom of Smiths Falls, there is a light that keeps the town engaged, together, and, well, full of good news.
The bubbly, smiley, world No. 2 golfer and Canadian Olympic favourite Brooke Henderson has never forgotten where she's from, and the people who live there have never been prouder of the town's favourite daughter.
"Smiths Falls is a great town," Henderson says. "All the people there are really supportive of my sister and I. We really appreciate that because no matter what happens on the golf course, they're always going to be cheering for us back home."
Henderson and her older sister, Brittany (a professional golfer in her own right, and Brooke's caddy), have their names on the sign as you drive into Smiths Falls—right above 'Sensational Smiths Falls'—and after you make a right off Main Street, past the sign, you'll see The Roosteraunt, a restaurant owned by the Hendersons' great aunt and uncle.
Their great uncle, Keith Drummond, retired from his main job and decided to open the restaurant a number of years ago. It's a greasy spoon that serves mostly breakfast and lunch, but dinner four nights a week, too.
"It's really popular," Brittany says with a smile.
Drummond says his restaurant has golf bags and posters of Brooke (and Brittany) hung everywhere, and they are planning for an Olympic-themed meal to be served Thursday.
Henderson's journey to the Olympics hasn't been dotted with challenges like many Olympic athletes. Instead, the lead up to her Rio debut has been, to borrow a restaurant term, served on a silver (Canada hopes gold) platter.
The Brooke Henderson story has been told, and told again, but here is a snapshot.
At 14, Henderson became the youngest person in history to win a professional golf event.
She then won the Canadian Women's Amateur in 2013 and ascended to No. 1 in the Official World Amateur Golf Rankings before turning professional in 2014, forgoing a scholarship to the University of Florida (although her childhood bedroom is still painted blue and orange in honour of her favourite school).
Because she was under 18, she wasn't able to secure status on the LPGA Tour until she won an event. She did just that, at the 2015 Cambia Portland Classic, by eight shots. She had to qualify for that field, as she did not receive an exemption otherwise.
She was named the Canadian Press' female athlete of the year for 2015. And just when you thought Henderson was done being a rookie sensation, the accomplishments kept coming.
Henderson won her first major championship at the Women's PGA Championship in June of this year in a playoff over No. 1 ranked Lydia Ko. She then went on to defend her title in Portland a few weeks later, and the conversations have already begun about giving Henderson the Lou Marsh Award for Canada's Athlete of the Year in 2016.
It would be difficult in an Olympic year for a golfer to capture that title, and already we've seen swimming sensation Penny Oleksiak capture the hearts of a nation—and perhaps the voters—with her four medals in the pool at Rio before Henderson even arrived on the property.
Even after Mike Weir's three PGA Tour wins—including the Masters—in 2003, he had stiff competition. But a gold medal in Rio for Henderson would cease any doubts.
But don't expect Henderson to change how she acts on or off the course even with the potential for incredible success, and that's just a product of where she's from.
"Hearing about Brooke's accomplishments on the LPGA Tour came as no surprise to me," says Henderson's best friend Bailey Andison, who is at the University of Denver on a swimming scholarship. "Even when we were young it was obvious that success was undoubtedly going to be in Brooke's future and everyone could see it."
"She is definitely the same person as before," confirms Henderson's long-time friend Neil Doef.
Doef and Henderson grew up together and went to the same school since they were in grade five. Henderson has said before that Doef inspires her, as he suffered a serious spinal injury while playing hockey for Canada at the World Junior A challenge in 2014.
This year, he walked across the stage at the NHL draft to receive the E.J. McGuire Award, given to a prospect "who best exemplifies commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness, and athleticism."
This moment came after many thought the 18-year-old could never walk again. But Doef says the inspiration is mutual.
"She still has the same smiley personality as she always had, and continued to stay true to her values," states Doef. "Her dedication, work ethic and motivation to be the best she can be—at whatever she is doing—is very inspiring for anyone."
Doef believes Henderson can win a gold in Rio and is "super happy" to be able to see Henderson's dream come true.
The dream, though, was a pretty recent one. Golf was awarded a spot in the Olympics just a few years ago after a 112-year absence. However, it was her friendship with Andison that sparked Henderson's passion for the every-four-year tradition.
"Growing up, everything surrounded the Olympics, even though golf wasn't in," says Henderson. "It was always on my mind because (Andison) would always talk about it or was excited about it."
Her conversations with Andison, who she has known since junior kindergarten, made Henderson realize how big a deal the Olympics are, and how so many people dream about being able to play in it.
"To be given that chance is really incredible," explains Henderson. "I'm really thankful, grateful, and blessed to be in this position."
And everyone in Smiths Falls is looking forward to her results.
"There's a lot of excitement that just started last week, and now it's spreading like wildfire," says Smiths Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow.
Pankow confirms Henderson has had celebrity status for quite a while, especially after her victories. All the signs in town were filled with congratulatory messages for her, and he admits people in town—who aren't even golfers—are really engaged in her performance. People are subscribing to Golf Channel and downloading the LPGA Tour's app for their phones.
"She's the darling of the community," he says.
But perhaps more importantly, while the people of Smiths Falls cheer her on, she has never forgotten about them.
"She's a dynamic young woman and incredible ambassador for the town," Pankow explains. "If you Googled 'Smiths Falls' a few years ago you would have gotten some disappointing news and challenges. But if you Google it now, stories about Brooke Henderson are far more common."
The support of the town is not lost on the Hendersons.
"Being from Smiths Falls, you feel like everyone is supporting you and if for some reason you're down a little bit, it helps to lift you up and re-motivate you knowing you have all these people in your corner," says Brittany.
And even Andison, who admits she missed not being able to recognize everyone as she walked down the street while away at school, says the support from Smiths Falls is "overwhelming."
"As a community they are really incredible, always ready to lend a helping hand or recognize someone for their accomplishments," she explains.
And even Tweed Inc., the medical marijuana company, is happy to have a home in Smiths Falls.
"Three years ago, it wasn't a given we would have the support of the community," explains Tweed President Mark Zekulin. "But the mayor, the business community, and the people of Smiths Falls were extremely welcoming of us and opened up a lot of opportunities. Since then, we've had nothing but positive feedback. We take pride in being a part of this community and growing together."
So with the women's Olympic golf competition underway, the little town that has struggled waits in excitement as 'their' Brooke (as she's better known, everyone in town feels like they have a piece of her) takes on the world and competes for a medal.
If Henderson gets into contention for the final round—a thought most believe will come to fruition—the televisions will be on at The Roosteraurant, at Smiths Falls Golf and Country Club (where she learned to play), at Rideau Lakes Golf and Country Club in Westport, Ontario (where the Henderson's have a family cottage and she took her first swings), and all over town.
And perhaps, they'll bare witness to some good news.