Pulling No Punches

Mark Hensby has never been afraid to say what he thinks, which is why some players love him while others wish he'd simply shut up
March 27, 2006

If you meet MarkHensby, you'll like him. But if you want to understand him, you ought to rentsome movies. So, for instance, when Hensby says, "Three quarters of theTour players are country-club kids who never had to work a day in theirlives," you can fast-forward to the scene in Caddyshack where snobby JudgeSmails asks Danny Noonan to mow his lawn. Or when Hensby describes the PGA Touras "cliquish," you can revisit the The Breakfast Club, in which jocks,nerds, prom queens, delinquents and weirdos refuse to mix. Got a tape ofCinderella Man or Rocky? Each has lines to compare with Hensby's "I came toAmerica with one or two pairs of jeans and a few shirts. My car was a $1,500Ford hatchback with roll-down windows." ¶ The boxing films especiallyresonate 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 thedesert foothills of Mesa, Ariz. "In a lot of ways it's like golf," hesays, giving the bag an affectionate slap. "You hit from your hip." ¶Hensby also shoots from the hip, and sometimes he hits sacred cows. InNovember, during a pretournament interview at the Australian Open, Hensbysuggested that Greg Norman could do more for Australian golf. That patty-cakejab angered Norman, drew rebukes from Aussie stars Robert Allenby and StuartAppleby, and had bloggers frothing over their keyboards. ("The only thingHensby has shown by speaking his mind is that his mind is of an inferiorquality," read one message-board rant. "He'd be better off keeping histrap shut.") Earlier in '05 Hensby publicly opined that teenage sensationMichelle Wie shouldn't get exemptions into PGA Tour events. He then completedthe generational trifecta by second-guessing septuagenarian Gary Player for hiscaptaincy of the International team at the Presidents Cup. ¶ "Now I'm justa big mouth," Hensby said recently, smiling at the idea that he, a littlemouse from Down Under, could somehow annoy golf's fat cats. "People think Imust have a chip on my shoulder because I had a hard upbringing and struggledall 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 thoughtthese things for years," he declared, "but nobody ever askedme."

For the first 30of his 33 years, Hensby's views carried so little weight that hotels didn'tcare if he filled out the how did we do? form. He was never technicallyhomeless--his mother, Enid, a divorced waitress, kept his bedroom well-dustedback in Tamworth, New South Wales--but in the winter of 1994 Hensby brieflylived in his Ford in the parking lot of the Cog Hill Golf & Country Club inLemont, Ill. When Hensby says "nobody ever asked me," he doesn't simplymean men with microphones or kids with autograph books. He also means censustakers and Jehovah's Witnesses. So you will excuse Hensby if, having finallybeen asked, he's ready with a direct answer.

"He says whatyou might have been thinking but didn't have the balls to say," says Tourpro Geoff Ogilvy, another Australian. "Some people don't like it, but he'sa genuine bloke. I don't think there's anyone on Tour who'd get paired with himand complain about it."

However, as evenHensby would be the first to admit, it's not the strength of his ideas but thestrength of his game that has suddenly made him quotable. Two years ago, in hissecond full Tour season, Hensby won the John Deere Classic and finished 15th onthe 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 winthe European tour's Scandinavian Masters and climbed to 28th in the WorldRanking. Invited to the Masters for the first time, Hensby played as if he'dbeen sleeping under the magnolias all his life, tying for fourth. Two monthslater, in his first try at the U.S. Open, he solved Pinehurst No. 2'sshort-game puzzles and tied for third.

While emerging onthe course, Hensby must have voiced an opinion or two as well, because healready had a reputation for saying what was on his mind. In November, when thePresidents Cup teams were invited to the White House for a photo op withPresident Bush, Australia's Nick O'Hern joked, "I'm going to be sure not tostand too close to Hensby."

The real humor ofthe situation is that Hensby, in the flesh, is a relaxed charmer with areflexive smile and a knack for putting people at ease. "Mark has nonegativity," says Kim Cavazzi, the 22-year-old Mesa bartender who has beenhis steady for eight months. "He's serious on Tour--he cares a lot abouthis job--but you don't ever see him getting upset, throwing clubs around. Weread the articles and I say, 'That's nothing like you!'"

But when Hensbyspeaks of his childhood, it's clear that he sees life as a landscapecrisscrossed with fences, each one having a clearly delineated inside andoutside. He grew up with his younger brother, Jason, in Tamworth, asheep-ranching town about five hours up the coast from Sydney. Jim Hensby, hisfather, was an air force flight sergeant who practiced boot-camp discipline onhis kids. Unhappy at home, Mark got a half-set of golf clubs for Christmas whenhe was 12, which was all he needed to establish a beachhead at the 1,100-memberTamworth Golf Club (annual dues: $90). Practicing every morning from dawn untilit was time for school, and every afternoon until dusk, Hensby was an 18handicapper 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 gotjealous."

The hostility, ifthat's what it was, didn't stop the kid. Young Hensby would strip to his trunksand wade into the 16th-hole water hazard to collect balls for practice. He'dthen hit balls over the boundary of the club's 150-yard practice area. Or he'dgo out at 6 a.m. and play from the back tees, which was against club rules. Orhe'd get caught playing two balls into a green in the gloaming, an offense forwhich he was routinely turned in by an unsympathetic greenkeeper. When Hensbyqualified for the 1986 New South Wales Open at age 15, he had to join anine-hole, sand-greens course in another town to get an official handicap.

"I broughtsome things on myself," Hensby acknowledges. Still, it rankled that hecould win the Tamworth club championship seven straight years and still notfeel accepted. "I got no encouragement at all," he recalls. "Theysit back now and say they helped me all the way, but they didn't do anything. Ihelped myself." Or, to be more accurate, he foundered. Unable to attract ascholarship offer from an American college, Hensby worked nights at arestaurant and mornings as a mailman. "I was frustrated," he says witha wan smile. "I thought I had the talent to be something."

Fortunately, afew others thought so too. Australian businessman Ray McGill, a Tamworth membertemporarily living in Chicago, invited the 22-year-old Hensby to the U.S. towork on his game. While under McGill's roof, Hensby lived off his savings andentered every amateur event he could, winning the '94 Illinois Amateur alongthe way. When McGill left Chicago, Hensby elected to stay. He caddied at ButlerNational. He practiced at Cog Hill. And when he couldn't find a place to beddown, he simply curled up in his old Ford, waking every hour or so to run theengine for warmth.

Hensby is wearyof the media's obsession with the car, saying "it went from me sleeping inthe car for two or three weeks"--the accurate version--"to somethingridiculous, like six months." But if Oprah were to ask, he'd stand by thestory. ("I put it out so kids would know you don't have to come from bigmoney to be successful.") He also makes the salient point that struggle isnot synonymous with unhappiness. Chicago was about hope and opportunity, andHensby rarely talks about his first year in America without mentioning the manypeople who fed him or gave him a place to stay. Topping the list is Cog Hillowner Frank Jemsek. "The Jemseks are so giving and generous, it'sunbelievable," Hensby says. "For them to do what they did forme...." Hensby's voice catches. "That's why I go back and play Chicagoevery year, out of respect for them."

Hensby turned proin 1995 and secured his first win of note at the '96 Illinois State Open. Hethen spent six of the next seven seasons on the Nationwide tour, winning threetimes and amassing 25 top 10s. His best season, 2000, earned him his first PGATour card, but he made the cut in only seven of 29 starts on the big stage andpromptly lost his privileges. Hensby's private life followed roughly the samecurve. His marriage to a Chicago woman lasted only seven years, but it produceda son, Chase, now six, who lives with his mother and whose visits Hensbyrelishes. "He's a good, smart little boy," says Hensby, "a joy tobe around."

As is Hensby.Since his return to the big Tour in 2004, he has entertained his peers and thepublic with some sharp play and an engaging personality. Among his fans: TigerWoods and Vijay Singh, the two superstars who can best relate to Hensby'sup-from-nowhere mystique.

He did produce araised eyebrow or two at last year's Bay Hill Invitational when he yanked histee shot out-of-bounds on the 36th hole and failed to complete his round.(Hensby wrote host Arnold Palmer a letter of explanation--he had run out ofgolf balls--and said, "I'd never disrespect his tournament.") Hesubsequently raised the roof with his casual dis of Norman, although Hensbyinsists he meant no disrespect to the Shark either. ("I said so many nicethings about Greg, but a lot of it gets turned around to make a story.")After that press conference Hensby's caddie, Fanny Sunesson, said, "Youdon't know what you just did. It's not that you said anything bad, but tomorrowin the papers it'll be huge."

Hensby'spoint--that only Norman has the name recognition and power to attract sponsorsand talent to the struggling Australasian circuit--is a staple of local sportscommentary. Nevertheless, instead of calling Hensby, an annoyed Norman had afriend give Hensby his phone number just before he teed off in the first roundof the Australian Open, a move that Hensby calls "low class." Hensbycalled the number after his round, but he didn't find the Shark forgiving. SaysHensby, "The phone call was difficult because he's a man I looked up to ingolf. But I'm not scared of Greg Norman."

Nor is Hensbyscared of his Presidents Cup teammates, Allenby and Appleby, who figurativelyplanted their spikes on his bum in defense of Norman. "Those two reallyripped me, and they didn't even know what I'd said," Hensby says."After that, I've really got no time for either of them. They aren't verysmart people." He smiles. "And you can write that."

What you can'twrite--or shouldn't, anyway--is that Hensby's opinion of Wie makes him asnorting misogynist. "I have no problem with Michelle playing on the Tourif she Monday-qualifies, but she's 16 years old and has never wonanything," he says. "And I never once said I hope she misses the cut.She's a super player." He adds that he had no qualms about AnnikaSorenstam's getting a sponsor's exemption at the 2003 Colonial. "She's thegreatest woman player ever; she proves herself day in and day out. I think ifshe played on our Tour regularly, she'd keep her card."

That kind ofnuance is Hensby's best defense against his detractors. "He's prettyquick-witted, and he spices things up now and again," says Tour veteran andfellow Aussie Rod Pampling. "More than that, he's simply blunt. Butgenerally it's the truth." Pampling pauses. "Generally."

Others see Hensbyas merely confused, a man who, to use the current buzz phrase, "is like thedog who caught the car." In his mind he's still the striving outsider, butnow he drives a Mercedes and lives in a beautiful house with a pool. LikeGatsby staring across the sound at the distant green light, Hensby sometimestakes his driver out on the patio and smacks used Titleists over the desertvegetation.

"I've neverbeen driven by materialistic things," he counters. "Obviously it's niceto have a new home and a nice car, but at the end of the day you simply want tobeat 150 guys every week."

So no, he hasn'tgot a chip on his shoulder. There's just that little flake still clinging fromwhen he was a boy in Australia and the tournament tees were forbiddenground.

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Darren CarrollFIGHTING WORDS After going 1-2-1 at the 2005 Presidents Cup (inset), Hensby was critical of Player's captaincy. PHOTOPhotographs by Darren Carroll DADDYDO RIGHT
Hensby's marriage, like his parents', ended in divorce, but his six-year-oldson Chase is a regular visitor.
PHOTOPhotographs by Darren Carroll BACKYARD BOMBER
Life at home in Mesa is a far cry from Hensby's days in Chicago, where he oncehad to live out of his car.

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