LAKE NONA, FLORIDA | The swings aren’t close. For two days in a row, fans on site at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions got to see the legend, Annika Sorenstam, play alongside one of the most popular players in the modern game, 12-time LPGA Tour winner and two-time major champion Brooke Henderson. And the differences were apparent from the get-go. Annika still has the same compact move that captured 10 major titles and 72 LPGA Tour trophies, a smooth, tight, one-plane turn where the club never reaches parallel, followed by a seemingly effortless rotation and release to a high finish. The only thing you might not teach in that swing is the head rotation, where Annika is looking down the target line when the club head reaches the ball. Other than that, it’s textbook.
Henderson swings at it like an athlete who was handed a club early in life and told to hit it as hard as she could. Every driver backswing gets past parallel, sometimes dipping into John Daly territory. From there, she drops the club on the sort of shallow inside plane that would raise Raymond Floyd’s eyebrows. It’s a perfect position to clear the hips and hit it hard, which is what Brooke does time after time after time. She is a ball-striking machine, hitting 34 of 42 fairways and 45 of 54 greens to reach 14-under and open up a three-shot lead heading into the final round.
“Yeah, there’s no doubt that she's one of the very best of the LPGA players currently,” Sorenstam said after her first two rounds ever with Henderson. “She drives it really well and is just very solid. She has good distance control.”
No one was better in those categories than Sorenstam in her prime. She always drove it straight and every shot with a short iron looked like it was going in the hole. In their at-home practice sessions, Sorenstam’s caddie would take a catcher’s mitt to the range to shag balls. Until she got to 8-iron he never had to move more than a step in any direction to field the shots.
Henderson’s caddie and sister Brittany never played baseball and wouldn’t try to field shots even if she did. But Brooke does have a similar kind of control.
That’s not the part of their games that is most similar, however. When asked what she saw in Henderson that reminded her of herself in her prime, Sorenstam said, “I just like her demeanor. She’s very steady. Maybe a little bit of her temperament, as well. She doesn’t get too excited, and she doesn’t get too angry when she doesn’t do well. She’s steady. She keeps that momentum going, and I think it’s easier to recover that way and keep it going.”
Immediately after Saturday’s third round, Henderson validated Sorenstam’s comments by signing autographs, posing for pictures, smiling at everyone and then saying, “I wasn’t as smooth out there today (as the first two rounds). But I feel like we fought it out pretty well. I was still hitting the ball very well and giving myself a lot of opportunities, so no complaints there. I just wasn’t making the same amount of putts that I did the other days. But the putter still feels really good. I’m just super excited to be in contention and in the final group the first tournament back (in 2023). It’s just a great feeling, and grateful to be here. Hopefully tomorrow is a good day.”
The putter got away from her a couple of times on Saturday, but she made up for it with a curing bomb for birdie on the 16th to shoot 3-under par.
“It’s golf,” she said. “It’s so up and down, and you have to be prepared for those hiccups and those times when things aren’t going to go as well as you would like. I’m hoping it won’t happen tomorrow, but like I said, it’s golf. It's a roller coaster. You just have to ride it out and fight back if it happens.”
Then, upon hearing Sorenstam’s comments, Henderson said, “That’s a huge compliment. We all look up to (Annika) out here, how steady she was and how consistent and how dominant she was. If I can just take little pieces of her game and add it to mine, that would be phenomenal.
“It was such a privilege and honor to be able to play with her these last two days. Even now, she’s so competitive and so tough but yet really kind and just a great player and great person.”
Hearing Henderson is reminiscent of the old Annika press-conference days. Even Sorenstam noticed.
“I always felt like Brooke was a really good ambassador for the game,” she said. “She has everything that it takes.”
That makes two of them.