It was a case of overnight fame, literally. But it was no surprise to Brian Henninger. How else to account for his behavior the week before the Masters? On a somnolent afternoon before his first appearance in Augusta, Henninger was working at home in his garden, in Canby, Ore., a nice piece of land about as big as a full wedge shot, riding his mower back and forth and checking on his rhododendrons, when suddenly he decided that he really ought to be planting azaleas.
What did Henninger know, and when did he know it? At the very least he knew more than the rest of us. A month ago Henninger was a scrappy little nobody who looked less like the PGA Tour player he is than the valet he once was. Then he leaped out of Augusta's legendary azaleas to shoot a pair of 68s and tie Ben Crenshaw for the Masters lead after three rounds. Playing in the final pairing with Crenshaw on Sunday, Henninger faded with a 76 as Crenshaw went on to win his second green jacket. But the well-spoken, telegenic ex-valet had made his mark, becoming a darling of the Masters, of CBS Sports and of the crowd. Just as he intended when he planted that bed of azaleas at home. That's Henninger, a guy who seems to have come out of nowhere when actually he has been planting the seeds all along.
This is what a couple of good rounds in a major championship can do for a career: Henninger's appearance fee immediately rose by 30%, up to about $5,000 a throw. He is suddenly in the running to play lucrative exhibitions in Europe, Japan and Asia, invitations previously out of his league. When he arrived at the MCI Heritage Classic in Hilton Head, S.C., on the Monday morning following the Masters, he was mobbed by fans on the Harbour Town Golf Links putting green. Hordes of people watched him tee off for a mere practice round.
For most of his career Henninger has been greeted with blank stares. A handful of people might crane for a look at the name on his golf bag, and a slow murmur would pass among them as they mispronounced it—the g is hard. In Hilton Head fans greeted him with congratulatory applause and whoops, clapped him on the back and called him by his first name. "There was eye contact, it was first-person recognition," Henninger says with satisfaction. He signed autographs all along the fairways and on the greens, on every scrap of paper thrust at him. "He was a celebrity," said Paul Goydos, who practiced with him. When Henninger missed the cut, shooting 76-70, it didn't seem to matter. At the next stop, the Kmart Greater Greensboro (N.C.) Open, they still wanted his signature. "For the first time in my life, I'm carrying a pen in my back pocket," he marveled.
But Henninger is no ingenue. Forget the soft, aqua-eyed handsomeness and the neat adolescent's build, 5'8" and 155 pounds. He's 31 and has been a waiter, a dishwasher and a road warrior. He's old enough and mature enough to have survived for three years on the PGA Tour and to be the father of a two-year-old daughter, Carlin. His wife, Cathy, is pregnant with their second child. "He's young in golf, but he's not young," says Peter Jacobsen, who lives in Portland and often plays with Henninger when they're home.
Beneath the boyish looks Henninger harbors an outsized ambition that sits in his stomach like an ache. Last May he had just gone four under through the first nine holes of the BellSouth Classic, at the Atlanta Country Club. As he watched his name go up on the leader board, he spotted author John Feinstein in the gallery. Feinstein was gathering material for a book he was writing about the Tour, A Good Walk Spoiled, and he had focused on Henninger, then an obscure player. Henninger walked over to Feinstein and gestured at the leader board. "That's where I belong," Henninger said. "I know I can play with these guys."
He proved it by remaining in contention the whole week. Paired with John Daly for the last two rounds, Henninger tried to capitalize on his anonymity, realizing there were no expectations of him. He was in awe of the huge galleries. "I might as well be invisible," he said to Feinstein. But he grabbed their attention on the tournament's final hole. As Henninger stood in the fairway of the par-5 18th hole, trailing Daly, the leader, by two strokes and with a 215-yard approach over water to the hole, CBS analyst Ken Venturi predicted that Henninger would lay up to protect his earnings. Instead Henninger drew a four-iron from his bag and knifed it to six feet, then sank the putt for an eagle to finish a stroke behind Daly in a tie for second, worth $105,600.
It was the start of something. Two months later Henninger won his first title, albeit an abbreviated one. The Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic in Madison, Miss., was halted after 36 holes because of torrential rains, and Henninger, tied for the lead at the time, birdied the first extra hole to win a playoff. He pocketed $126,000, a two-year Tour exemption and a coveted invitation to the Masters.
Henninger's playing privileges on the Tour are hard-earned compared with, say, those of a peer like 31-year-old Davis Love III. Henninger has no golf pedigree, nor was he ever a prodigy. His parents, Wayne and Carolyn, owned a chain of spaghetti restaurants around Oregon and Washington. As a kid growing up in Eugene, Brian was good at whatever he did, mostly because he had no quit in him. Even play-wrestling with his friends could lead to a fight. "You better get off me now or I'll have to hit you," he would say.
As a junior player he was more accomplished at tennis than golf, reaching the state-championship semifinals as a sophomore and junior in high school. Golf was his summer and weekend recreation. But in his senior year he won the state high school AAAA golf title. At USC he played on a team that included Sam Randolph, the 1985 U.S. Amateur champion, and John Flannery, both of whom now compete on the Nike Tour. Henninger graduated in 1987, having majored in psychology and minored in business, then moved to La Quinta, Calif., near Palm Springs, with the idea of turning pro and playing the mini-tour.