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If you meet Mark Hensby, you'll like him. But if you want to understand him, you ought to rent some movies. So, for instance, when Hensby says, "Three quarters of the Tour players are country-club kids who never had to work a day in their lives," you can fast-forward to the scene in Caddyshack where snobby Judge Smails asks Danny Noonan to mow his lawn. Or when Hensby describes the PGA Tour as "cliquish," you can revisit the The Breakfast Club, in which jocks, nerds, prom queens, delinquents and weirdos refuse to mix. Got a tape of Cinderella Man or Rocky? Each has lines to compare with Hensby's "I came to America with one or two pairs of jeans and a few shirts. My car was a $1,500 Ford hatchback with roll-down windows." � The boxing films especially resonate because Hensby dabbled in kickboxing when he was a boy in Australia. These days he punches a black heavy bag in a spare bedroom at his house in the desert foothills of Mesa, Ariz. "In a lot of ways it's like golf," he says, giving the bag an affectionate slap. "You hit from your hip." � Hensby also shoots from the hip, and sometimes he hits sacred cows. In November, during a pretournament interview at the Australian Open, Hensby suggested that Greg Norman could do more for Australian golf. That patty-cake jab angered Norman, drew rebukes from Aussie stars Robert Allenby and Stuart Appleby, and had bloggers frothing over their keyboards. ("The only thing Hensby has shown by speaking his mind is that his mind is of an inferior quality," read one message-board rant. "He'd be better off keeping his trap shut.") Earlier in '05 Hensby publicly opined that teenage sensation Michelle Wie shouldn't get exemptions into PGA Tour events. He then completed the generational trifecta by second-guessing septuagenarian Gary Player for his captaincy of the International team at the Presidents Cup. � "Now I'm just a big mouth," Hensby said recently, smiling at the idea that he, a little mouse from Down Under, could somehow annoy golf's fat cats. "People think I must have a chip on my shoulder because I had a hard upbringing and struggled all my life. But most of the players know I'm not trying to make enemies." Besides, he only spoke out because reporters asked him to. "I've thought these things for years," he declared, "but nobody ever asked me."
For the first 30 of his 33 years, Hensby's views carried so little weight that hotels didn't care if he filled out the how did we do? form. He was never technically homeless--his mother, Enid, a divorced waitress, kept his bedroom well-dusted back in Tamworth, New South Wales--but in the winter of 1994 Hensby briefly lived in his Ford in the parking lot of the Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill. When Hensby says "nobody ever asked me," he doesn't simply mean men with microphones or kids with autograph books. He also means census takers and Jehovah's Witnesses. So you will excuse Hensby if, having finally been asked, he's ready with a direct answer.
"He says what you might have been thinking but didn't have the balls to say," says Tour pro Geoff Ogilvy, another Australian. "Some people don't like it, but he's a genuine bloke. I don't think there's anyone on Tour who'd get paired with him and complain about it."
However, as even Hensby would be the first to admit, it's not the strength of his ideas but the strength of his game that has suddenly made him quotable. Two years ago, in his second full Tour season, Hensby won the John Deere Classic and finished 15th on the money list with $2.7 million. Last year he played eight fewer U.S. tournaments and fell to 59th, but he beat Henrik Stenson in a playoff to win the European tour's Scandinavian Masters and climbed to 28th in the World Ranking. Invited to the Masters for the first time, Hensby played as if he'd been sleeping under the magnolias all his life, tying for fourth. Two months later, in his first try at the U.S. Open, he solved Pinehurst No. 2's short-game puzzles and tied for third.
While emerging on the course, Hensby must have voiced an opinion or two as well, because he already had a reputation for saying what was on his mind. In November, when the Presidents Cup teams were invited to the White House for a photo op with President Bush, Australia's Nick O'Hern joked, "I'm going to be sure not to stand too close to Hensby."
The real humor of the situation is that Hensby, in the flesh, is a relaxed charmer with a reflexive smile and a knack for putting people at ease. "Mark has no negativity," says Kim Cavazzi, the 22-year-old Mesa bartender who has been his steady for eight months. "He's serious on Tour--he cares a lot about his job--but you don't ever see him getting upset, throwing clubs around. We read the articles and I say, 'That's nothing like you!'"
But when Hensby speaks of his childhood, it's clear that he sees life as a landscape crisscrossed with fences, each one having a clearly delineated inside and outside. He grew up with his younger brother, Jason, in Tamworth, a sheep-ranching town about five hours up the coast from Sydney. Jim Hensby, his father, was an air force flight sergeant who practiced boot-camp discipline on his kids. Unhappy at home, Mark got a half-set of golf clubs for Christmas when he was 12, which was all he needed to establish a beachhead at the 1,100-member Tamworth Golf Club (annual dues: $90). Practicing every morning from dawn until it was time for school, and every afternoon until dusk, Hensby was an 18 handicapper within a year, a three within two years and a plus-one at 15. "I got so good so quick," he says, "that some club members got jealous."
The hostility, if that's what it was, didn't stop the kid. Young Hensby would strip to his trunks and wade into the 16th-hole water hazard to collect balls for practice. He'd then hit balls over the boundary of the club's 150-yard practice area. Or he'd go out at 6 a.m. and play from the back tees, which was against club rules. Or he'd get caught playing two balls into a green in the gloaming, an offense for which he was routinely turned in by an unsympathetic greenkeeper. When Hensby qualified for the 1986 New South Wales Open at age 15, he had to join a nine-hole, sand-greens course in another town to get an official handicap.
"I brought some things on myself," Hensby acknowledges. Still, it rankled that he could win the Tamworth club championship seven straight years and still not feel accepted. "I got no encouragement at all," he recalls. "They sit back now and say they helped me all the way, but they didn't do anything. I helped myself." Or, to be more accurate, he foundered. Unable to attract a scholarship offer from an American college, Hensby worked nights at a restaurant and mornings as a mailman. "I was frustrated," he says with a wan smile. "I thought I had the talent to be something."
Fortunately, a few others thought so too. Australian businessman Ray McGill, a Tamworth member temporarily living in Chicago, invited the 22-year-old Hensby to the U.S. to work on his game. While under McGill's roof, Hensby lived off his savings and entered every amateur event he could, winning the '94 Illinois Amateur along the way. When McGill left Chicago, Hensby elected to stay. He caddied at Butler National. He practiced at Cog Hill. And when he couldn't find a place to bed down, he simply curled up in his old Ford, waking every hour or so to run the engine for warmth.