When Brooke Henderson was 11, the LPGA Tour’s CP Canadian Women’s Open came to the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club and she got to meet her idol, Morgan Pressel.
Nine years later Henderson, already a multi-time winner on the LPGA Tour herself and just 19, returned to the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club to play in the Canadian Women’s Open herself, and, perhaps, inspire another young girl to pick up the sport.
“I’ve come to realize that even the smallest of gestures can leave a lasting impression on everyone we touch,” she says.
There were many fans to choose from, as countless, young golfers – a heavy majority were girls – were wearing her already-iconic Ping visor, just champing at the bit to get a piece of the native of little Smiths Falls, Ont.
For a sport that’s always been perceived as dominated by men, here in Canada it’s two women, Henderson and RBC’s Mary DePaoli, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the bank, who are arguably golf’s most influential figures.
Henderson – with a legion of young followers already, five LPGA Tour wins, an Olympic appearance, and having peaked at No. 2 in the world – is just coming off her best finish of the 2018 LPGA Tour season, a tie for second at the HSBC Women’s World Championship, and has notched three top-10 finishes in the first four events she’s played this year.
“I feel like I’m in a really good spot with my swing and most parts of my game. It was nice to be in the final group on Sunday in Singapore and have a chance to bring home the trophy there,” says Henderson.
She says seeing young fans outside the ropes at LPGA Tour events means the world to her. She wants to be a better player, and person, for them. And she’s been surrounded by strong women her whole life, as she says her mom, Darlene, and sister (and caddie) Brittany, are her biggest supporters.
“Brit was definitely a driving force for me to pick up the game,” she says. “Whether it’s when we’re traveling together, trying to piece together our schedule, Brit picking me up and pushing me while we’re out on the course… my mom and sister are my best friends and I’m so lucky to have them in my life.”
DePaoli, meanwhile, spearheads all of RBC’s sponsorship initiatives as it relates to sport, which includes the bank’s multi-million dollar investment in golf in Canada.
RBC is the only sponsor on the PGA Tour that lends its name to two events – the RBC Heritage and the RBC Canadian Open – with purses north of US$6 million each. It also sponsors the PGA of Canada’s RBC Scramble, and Golf Canada’s National Team.
The bank just signed world No. 1 Dustin Johnson to a sponsor agreement, joining major winners Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell, along with PGA Tour winners Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Adam Hadwin, and more – including Henderson.
She says she sat down with Johnson last year during the Canadian Open and had a number of conversations about his philosophy as a father and a golfer and as someone who is determined to remain at No. 1.
“Dustin has been on our radar for a long time,” DePaoli says.
Johnson hasn’t signed a new sponsor agreement in a number of years – and it’s rare that a world No. 1 signs with a company in the middle of the season – but RBC was special, and DePaoli managed to get the deal done.
But she says getting to her role as CMO hasn’t come without its challenges as a woman.
“Unfortunately we still have a long way to go and there continues to be too many headlines about harassment, discrimination or lack of inclusiveness, and it’s movements like ‘#MeToo’ and ‘#TimesUp’ that show us how far we still need to go as a society to be more inclusive of women, and be catalysts for that change,” said DePaoli, who is the mother of two daughters.
“The bottom line is that I think sport and business needs to encourage more talented women to participate, and sport needs women… but I think the social context we’re now operating under gives us hope the future will be a more progressive one.”
Henderson believes the LPGA Tour has done a good job in growing the game and empowering young women, and says knowing she’s a small part of the driving force is pretty special.
“On top of just playing the game, we see some type of event almost every week at our tournaments that encourages women’s leadership, women in science and technology, [or] female empowerment through sports,” she says. “It’s incredible to see the attendance at these events.”
The story of Henderson meeting Pressel a decade ago was one of hope, and DePaoli says she wouldn’t be surprised if she sees more of that moving forward especially as Henderson – just two full seasons into her LPGA Tour career – gets closer to becoming the winningest professional golfer in Canadian history (both Mike Weir and Sandra Post have eight wins, on the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour respectively in their careers. Henderson is more than halfway to that total).
DePaoli says she sees female athletes do well at inspiring each other and raising each other up – something Henderson sees on the LPGA Tour every week – and young girls are, now more than ever, looking at female athletes and seeing themselves in them.
“They want to see toughness. They want to see the heart, the grit, and the competitiveness. And none of that makes you any less feminine. It doesn’t make you less female,” says DePaoli. “This is what girls and women are looking for in their icons, and Brooke Henderson is one of those icons.”