Date: November 14, 2018
Author: Martin Blake

THE JOURNEY: Mark Hensby’s long road to The Lakes

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He’s the man with the most extraordinary journey to the #AusOpenGolf this year.

Mark Hensby has just spent a year in which he barely picked up a golf club; on suspension for missing a drug test in the United States, annoyed that his family had to deal with the resulting publicity, and wondering whether he would ever play again.

But his 12-month suspension imposed by the US PGA Tour expired last month, and last Monday at Carnarvon Golf Club he shot 68 to force his way through qualifying and into the #AusOpenGolf field at The Lakes. Tomorrow he will tee it up for the first time in an Open since 2007 at The Australian, when Craig Parry won.

To think it is far-fetched is putting it mildly.

He’d asked for a sponsor’s exemption, and the silence was deafening, so he stayed in Australia and chose to enter the qualifying. Ironically, the 47-year-old Hensby knew his way around Carnarvon. “I won a (NSW) country championship there when I was about 18 or 19,’’ he said. “The trees are a little bigger now, though! It was probably 27 years ago at least.’’

Hensby’s record suggests he’s one of the better players in the field. In 2005, his finest season, he finished tied-fifth in the Masters at Augusta National, tied-third in the US Open at Pinehurst and tied-15th in the Open Championship at St Andrews, pitching himself inside the top 30 on the world rankings.

But a bad injury from a car accident and a lull in form followed, and by 2017, he was ready to quit the game. Then the suspension came after his brain fade at Jackson, Mississippi, in October 2017 at the Sanderson Farms Championship, where he went to the drug-testing area as required after a poor first round, was made to wait, and told the testers that he would return the next day. Because the tour’s rules declare that skipping a test is the same as failing one, he copped a 12-month ban.

Hensby came out and explained himself, arguing at the time: “Call me stupid, but don’t call me a cheater.’’

But it hurt him to hear his sons Chase 19, and Caden 7, and his wife Kim were being questioned publicly about his behaviour. “The bottom line is if I’d won five or six tournaments and decided not to take it (the test) that’d be a whole different issue. But I made $20,000 in five years. To think I was cheating! That’s the most laughable thing about it to me.

“The only thing that was embarrassing was how it came out in the press and my kids had to deal with it. My family had to deal with it. That was the biggest, hardest thing in it for me. They were getting asked questions by people. That’s hard for them to have to answer questions. It’s on me, not them.”

Hensby stopped playing all together until six months into his suspension, when he returned from his adopted hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona to his native Tamworth and his brother Darren convinced him to go out and play. He hit it nicely, too, and remembers thinking back then: ‘Maybe I’ll go hit some balls’.

The competitive fires were gradually stoked. When he returned to tournament play at the NSW Open last week, he shot a 64 in the second round but still was not happy with how he played. He knows that he is rusty … so rusty.

 “The first six months, I didn’t touch a club,’’ he said. “You know what, to be honest, I dabbled in a couple of things, golf-related stuff, but they weren’t going anywhere. Obviously, you can teach, but unless it’s really good players… I’d like to teach young kids with aspirations of being a pro, no doubt.

“The biggest thing is I don’t have much consistency. At the moment, it’s tough. You look at the best player in the world (Tiger Woods), or the best player I’ve seen anyway, and he took a year off and look how long it took him to get back. Someone like me, it’s going to take a bit of time. To be honest, I’m getting ready for the senior tour if I want to play that.’’

This week, his expectations are tempered. He tees off at 7.45am tomorrow.  “A lot depends on the conditions,’’ he said. “If it’s tough, you never know. I’d like it to be windy, which is forecast, I think.’’