To some observers, Brian Henninger seems to be fighting a losing battle to regain his full-time playing status on the PGA Tour. But it would be unwise to bet against him.
For starters, Henninger might be pro sports' poster boy for perseverance and determination. It was that never-say-die attitude, plus some amazing hand-eye coordination and a tidy self-made swing that helped the former Lake Oswego resident achieve a fair amount of success on the PGA Tour over the last 14 years.
Surprisingly, Henninger didn't even know how to play golf until his senior year at Eugene's Sheldon High School. That's when he dropped tennis and taught himself how to play golf. Henninger was such a good athlete that he not only adapted well to his new sport, he wound up winning the 4A state golf championship that year (in 1981).
Since he was a newcomer to the sport, no one offered him a scholarship to play in college. So he walked on at the University of Southern California, which was a breeding ground for some of the future stars of the game. Henninger not only proved he belonged, he wound up earning All-American status his junior and senior years. The bulldog-type determination of the 5-foot-8, 140-pound Henninger was already clearly in evidence. And his life was beginning to sound like a movie script.
'That movie Invincible … reminded me a little bit of myself,' Henninger said.
Henninger turned pro in 1987, but that guaranteed him absolutely nothing. For many players, turning pro is simply a license to starve to death, and Henninger certainly endured his share of hardship before reaching the PGA Tour.
Times were especially difficult heading into the 1992 season on the Ben Hogan mini tour. Playing on that tour in 1990, Henninger had mustered just $2,325 in earnings. He supported himself and his wife, Cathy (who graduated from Lakeridge High School), from the winnings he collected from mini-tour pot games. After a sub-par 1991 season, Henninger was flat broke heading into the 1992 season opener in Corpus Christi, Texas.
To keep his career going, Henninger decided to sell shares in himself (just like a corporation would do on Wall Street) to members of the Eugene Country Club. A lot of well-to-do members pledged their support, but long-time family friend Cordy Jensen was the only one who came through with any cash.
The ten $100 bills from Jensen would not have financed much more than a round-trip drive to Corpus Christi and back. So, it was very fortunate that Henninger won that tournament and pocketed $20,000 first-place prize money in the process. After returning home to Eugene, Henninger had little trouble raising $30,000 for his investment account.
After that disappointing 1991 season, Henninger very easily could have found himself teaching golf somewhere instead of playing it. But his perseverance paid off in a big way in 1992 when he won $128,301 on the Nike Tour, which earned Henninger a full-time promotion to the PGA Tour. His career really took off in 1994, which included a second-place finish at the Atlanta Open, where he nearly chased down eventual champion John Daly. Later that year, there was a victory at the Deposit Guaranty Classic in Jackson, Miss.
That victory earned him a spot in the coveted Masters in 1995 and Henninger made the most of his opportunity with a Saturday birdie barrage (most of which was seen on national television) that moved him into a tie for first place with Ben Crenshaw. Henninger faded a bit on Sunday while playing in the final group but he still earned a $52,000 paycheck and an invitation back to the 1996 Masters.
His best year on the tour came in 1999 when he won the Mississippi tournament for a second time. He won $774,486 that season, which placed him 55th on the tour's money list. The 2000 season was a good one as well with $527,741 in winnings, which was good enough for 91st on the money list. Not bad for a guy who had never planned on being a professional golfer.
'There was no intent, where I said 'I'm going to make my living for the next 20 years doing this,' ' Henninger recalls. 'I didn't have any ambitions … but at each level I kept elevating.'
Henninger had a decent season in 2001, when he won $160,814. But that was only good enough for 184th on the money list and only the top 125 players get to retain their tour cards for the following season.
Players without tour cards have very few chances to enter tournaments, but Henninger still managed to win a combined $447,617 during the 2002-03 seasons. It was impressive, considering the circumstances, but neither year did he play well enough to get his card back. So, at the end of each season, from 2003 through '06, Henninger decided to play in the PGA Tour qualifying tournament, which might be the toughest golf tournament in the world.
Henninger usually played well in those qualifying tournaments, including setting the scoring record during a preliminary round in 2004. And he's still trying to get his card back. It's a rough way for Henninger, and other players in his position, to make a living. But he isn't complaining too much about the hand fate has dealt him.
'Relative to everyone else, I'd hate to think that my life is tough,' Henninger said as he prepared for another year of splitting time between the PGA and the Nationwide Tour (formerly the Nike Tour).
After experiencing success on the PGA Tour, it would seem that Henninger could handle the Nationwide Tour (which is the minor league to the PGA) with relative ease. But the competition at the lower level isn't much easier.
'The Nationwide Tour is just as competitive, or maybe even more competitive (than the PGA Tour),' Henninger said. 'There's so much ability now, and there's so much great support with the all of the coaches … These kids are just so ready … If you aren't prepared and you aren't excited about being there, they just run right over you.'
At the age of 44, Henninger almost seems out of place with those kids on the Nationwide Tour. But he still has the game to compete with any of them, and it's good enough for him to hold his own at the next level as well. In fact, Henninger is now more excited about his game than ever before.
'I'm better now than I was when I was winning,' said Henninger, who is a long-time member of the Oregon Golf Club in West Linn.
After experiencing a great deal of success with a self-made swing, Henninger never saw much of a reason to spend time with a swing coach, like all pro players do now. However, after enduring disappointing seasons in 2004 and '05, Henninger decided to start working with Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett, a pair of upstarts who have revolutionized golf instruction by teaching a more compact, balanced swing that's easily repeatable. Henninger's work with the two instructors has him more excited about the game than ever before.
'They had four guys win on the tour last year,' Henninger exclaimed. 'But they want to make it easy for (anybody) to learn to play golf. It's so cool … I have even more interest to continue after working with them.'
The excitement never really left Henninger's game, but now with the help of Plummer and Bennett, don't be surprised if the former Lake Oswego resident gets his tour card back sometime in the near future.