Henke Hankering
for Old Form

by Jay Coffin

Nolan Henke still has the desire to get back on the PGA Tour although his skills have diminished over the last five years. The longtime Fort Myers resident continues to practice as much as he ever has, he just can’t seem to find the answers he’s been so desperately searching for. The circumstances are beyond frustrating for a 39-year-old man who has always found a way to work his way into the golf spotlight, no matter what the platform.

“I’m still trying to play as much as I can, still trying to improve,” Henke says. “But playing bad isn’t a whole lot of fun.”

Playing poorly is something that is fairly foreign to Henke. Since his early days with the game back in the 1970s, Henke has started from the bottom and worked his way up. First it was local and regional junior golf where Henke got his feet wet with the competitive side of the game. His skills developed quickly and he was a star for Fort Myers High School’s golf team in the early 1980s. That led to a full scholarship at Florida State, which instantly gave Henke grand visions of a professional future.

Henke fought hard to put the Seminoles on the college golf radar screen and he was, and still is, Florida State’s only three time All-American (1985-87). During his stay in Tallahassee, Henke won seven college events, several major amateur titles and finished second to Oklahoma State’s Brian Watts in the 1987 NCAA Championship.

The first few years as a professional were lean and Henke barely made enough in earnings to make ends meet. Then, virtually overnight, Henke matched his swing with his confidence level and the 1990s were a great success. He won three tournaments during the decade (the 1990 B.C. Open, 1991 Phoenix Open, 1993 BellSouth Classic) finished as high as 28th in earnings (1991 with $518,881) and finished outside the top 100 in earnings only twice (111th in 1997 and 122nd in 1999).

During the ’90s Henke played in 16 major championships and recorded four top 10s finishes, his best a tie for sixth at the ’92 Masters and a tie for sixth at the ’93 PGA Championship. Yet he considers his greatest golf moment the victory in Phoenix more than 13 years ago, saying that his first victory a year earlier was such a blur that he doesn’t remember much about it. Standing on the tee box of the 72nd and final hole of the ’91 Phoenix event, Henke was tied for the lead with superstars Curtis Strange, Tom Watson and Gil Morgan. However, he found the fortitude to calm his nerves and drain an 18-foot birdie putt to win outright.

“If I would have missed that putt I would have gone into a playoff,” Henke still recalls. “I don’t think I would have had a really good shot in that playoff against those guys.”

These days, Henke is doing everything in his power to return his game to the glory years which has given him more than $3.6 million in career earnings. He practices feverishly with swing coach Mike Calbot and plays regularly out at The Vines in South Fort Myers. Finding time, however, is exceedingly more difficult now. He and his wife Michelle have a daughter, Hayden Reese, who will turn three-years-old shortly after Christmas. Family is now the No. 1 priority for Henke, but golf is still clearly in second place.

“I used to practice whenever I felt like it,” Henke said. “Now I have to practice when I’m able to. I have to get up early and do it or do it later in the day, but I still like to practice. I just have other commitments now. Golf used to be it, but now it’s not at the top of the list.”

The strengths and weaknesses of Henke’s game have changed. When he first got out on the PGA Tour he was a great ball-striker, always residing near the top 10 in greens hit in regulation. Then the ball-striking began to slide and he became a great putter. Now, Henke doesn’t know where to turn. The more he tries to fix things the worse they become. He believes it’s gotten to the point where he is too mechanical and overanalyzes every situation. Henke and Calbot are now working to correct that and get feel back in his swing and putting stroke.

“I’m trying to find what works for me,” Henke said. “I’m just waiting for that lightbulb to go on.”

In the meantime, it has been difficult for Henke to see where he stands against the game’s elite because he doesn’t have a place to compare his skills. He hasn’t played a full season on the PGA Tour since 2000, the last four have been spent wherever he can play, a mixture of PGA and Nationwide Tour events. This year Henke’s only PGA Tour start was at the B.C. Open—he missed the cut—in July because he is a past champion. He began the season on the Nationwide Tour needing to play well to be able to earn his way into more events. He played in 10 events, only made one cut and has played in two tournaments since June.

With the season virtually over, Henke is now focused on the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, it is the only way he’ll be able to get back to the PGA Tour for 2005. He is exempt through the first stage and must attempt second stage. If he gets through that 72-hole test and advances to the final stage, he’ll at least have some sort of status for next year on the Nationwide Tour. But that’s not something he’ll be pleased with, Henke has his sights set on something far greater.

“I’d really like to get my game back and get competing again,” Henke said. “I’d like to get back on Tour and have the opportunity to win a tournament.” •

from the November-December 2004 issue