Mark Hensby’s golf career forged by resilience
15 Min Read
Written by Doug Milne @PGATOUR
While the game of golf may appeal to the casual viewer as a relaxed and easy way to thrive, for those within the professional ranks, it’s a trying journey. Every bad bounce or miscue can lead to questioning oneself and, even worse, self-doubt.
The same can be said for a person’s journey through life.
Mark Hensby’s golf career has been marked by resilience. Faced with a difficult road to success in professional golf, Hensby persevered and has managed to make a career for himself. What few people know about the Australian, though, is that his resiliency was forged through a difficult upbringing, one that he refused to let define him.
At every crossroad, the qualities of conviction and sincerity guided him.
Born in Melbourne, Australia in 1971, Hensby and his two brothers, Darren and Jason, grew up with their parents about five hours north of Sydney in the small town of Tamworth. When he was just a young lad, the boys’ parents divorced.
Hensby’s formative years were emotional and challenging ones, which came to define his direction in life, personally and professionally.
“My dad was both mentally and physically abusive,” Hensby said. “It was to an extreme that people wouldn't understand. To go home every afternoon thinking something bad is probably going to happen is a hard way to live as a kid. I took it upon myself to make sure I wasn't home very often.”
According to Hensby, what began as emotional abuse soon turned very physical. When they became teenagers, the severity only got worse.
“I just didn’t understand,” Hensby said. “And, to this day, I still don’t.”
More than he feared for himself, Hensby felt sorriest for his older brother, Darren, who caught the violence worse than his brothers.
Hensby’s life with his father was so volatile, in fact, that his daily routine included leaving the house before his father – who worked nights – got home. His usual escape from what is supposed to be one’s safe place started each morning at 4:45 a.m., just prior to his father’s 5 a.m. return home. At the other end of each long day, with one exception, Hensby would not return home for the night until his father had left for work.
“I did have to be home for dinner,” he said. “If I wasn’t, the repercussions were pretty bad. So, yeah, it was definitely not the picture-perfect childhood, that's for sure.”
When the sanctity of his own home proved to be anything but a safe haven, Hensby sought diversions at every turn. As a pre-teen, he stumbled onto an unlikely activity that provided a desperately needed respite.
“I was 12 years old when I first played golf,” Hensby said. “Me and a kid up the street I played rugby with one day said, ‘Let's go play nine holes of golf’. We both laughed, like, ‘Play what?’. But we did it – we went and played nine holes. And that’s where it all started.”
Hensby began playing every Sunday, then every day. With his school in close proximity to the course, Hensby even began playing before and after classes.
“I practiced, practiced and practiced” said Hensby. “I became obsessed with golf.”
Within two years of having first touched a golf club, Hensby was carrying a three handicap. Impressive growth by anyone’s measure. The impetus behind that rapid improvement, though, remained a sad one: fear.
“Now that I look back in time, I see that, yes, it definitely was (an escape),” Hensby said of his childhood home with his father. “But, in saying that, I had become obsessed with golf, too. So, I think it was a perfect storm. I didn't want to be at home, and I was obsessed with golf.”
Back then, Hensby recalled the club’s members as being anything but enthusiastic about juniors taking over the course and its practice facilities. From those complaints came the mandate that Hensby would be permitted to play and practice just once a week, Sunday mornings.
In addition to practicing and playing all he could as he ushered in his teenage years, Hensby drew a paycheck by washing dishes and mopping floors at a nearby restaurant.
“That was a funny one, because I didn't do it every night, just Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights,” he recalled. “I then got a second job as a postman, delivering mail. Thursdays and Fridays were a little tough, because I worked until 2 a.m. at the restaurant, then had to be up at 5 a.m., just a few hours later, to go to the post office.”
Over time, golf became a source of confidence, comfort, belonging – those things that should have been encouraged and developed at home. When the quality of his game began to draw attention, Hensby’s hope for a scholarship to experience college kept his drive alive.
College would have provided him the chance to further, both, his education and golf game. More than anything else, though, it would have provided him somewhere to possibly find the peace he never was never afforded at home.
“When you grow up, let’s say you have Tiger Woods on one hand, whose dad always told him he was going to be great and well…” Hensby said. “But, then there’s the kid who is always being told he’s wasting his time and will never amount to anything. You get told that a million times and it’s definitely going to be a harder road.”
Hensby said that playing golf in college was always in his mind. His concern, though, was that not many people knew about him because of where he lived. It wasn’t a major city which, Hensby said, is a big kind of handicap in Australia. He never did receive a scholarship.
Through a mutual friend of Marks, Hensby was offered a move to America in 1994; specifically, Chicago. If willing to relocate to the Windy City, he was told, this mutual friend offered free lodging and even practice facility access at the famed Cog Hill. Hensby wasted little time making his decision of which way to go at that life intersection.
“I saved up my money with various jobs I was doing at the time,” Hensby said. “I was still an amateur, so I came over and gave it a shot.”
It wasn’t always easy for Hensby, though. One of the more dramatic stories that gained media traction centered on a period of – for lack of a more fitting term – being between homes.
“That has been exaggerated over the years,” Hensby insisted. “I didn't do it for three months (as reported). It was just that, at times, there was nowhere for me to stay. The people I’d come over to stay with left and I had nowhere to go.”
As often as he could, Hensby would sneak into the upstairs of the clubhouse, where some of the staff stayed, in an effort to possibly find an unclaimed bed. Most nights, though, he was out of luck and ended up sleeping in his car in the Cog Hill parking lot.
“When it got to wintertime, it got quite cold, so I'd have to drive around to warm the car up for a little bit,” Hensby said. “The range manager found me one really cold morning. My feet were almost frozen, so people helped me along the way and found me somewhere to stay. That was very nice.”
After winning the 1994 Illinois State Amateur the year he relocated to America, Hensby blistered the 1996 Illinois Open field by eight shots. Qualifying for the Korn Ferry Tour in 1997 paved the way to three wins on that Tour. On the strength of his second-place finish on the 2000 Korn Ferry Tour money list, Hensby earned PGA TOUR rookie status for the 2001 season.
Hensby was relegated back to the Korn Ferry Tour in 2002 and remained there until earning a return to the TOUR in 2004 after claiming his third and final Korn Ferry Tour title in 2003.
By that point, Hensby had covered a lot of ground, personally, professionally and emotionally. With each passing day, his resolve grew tougher. He drew as much strength and focus from the things that didn’t work out as he did from those that did. Having risen above the trials and tribulations of his childhood resulted in a resilient and patient player.
At the BMW Championship on the PGA TOUR on the Fourth of July in 2004, Hensby finished T3, three strokes behind winner Stephen Ames. A week after that 2004 top-5 finish in Chicago, Hensby took what he hoped to be good momentum to Silvis, Illinois for the John Deere Classic. After making an ace on the third hole in round one at TPC Deere Run, Hensby overcame a 4-stroke deficit beginning the final round with a 5-under 66 to finish at 16-under 268 and tied with John Morgan after 72 holes.
On the second playoff hole, the kid from a small town outside of New South Wales who had picked up the game as a means of self-preservation emerged victorious. In addition to being quite a handsome payday, the validation for all his years of tireless, perhaps even stubborn, work had finally reached fruition.
Mark Hensby and John Morgan at the 2004 John Deere Classic
“I think the John Deere Classic win did prove something,” Hensby said. “I never played golf to prove anyone wrong or right. But there were a lot of naysayers. I proved to people that my hard work wasn’t a waste of time.”
Highlighted by that victory in the Quad Cities area, a runner-up finish and two third-place showings, Hensby’s 2004 campaign landed him nearly $3 million in earnings, more than double the amount he would make in any other season on any TOUR.
Things were looking up for Hensby – way up. That banner 2004 season resulted in a position on the international squad of the 2005 Presidents Cup Team.
A year later, though, fate befell Hensby again.
A 2006 car crash after picking up his son, Chase, from school ended with Hensby’s son being air-lifted to the hospital. Chase would make a full recovery, but his father’s return to form was more challenging than originally anticipated.
Though he did not sustain severe injuries in the crash, Hensby found himself struggling upon his return to competition. Lingering and/or new pain was severe enough that he became unable to finish that 2006 season.
“I just remember how hard it was and how much work it took to get there,” Hensby recalled. “Then, for all of that to just disappear overnight was difficult. It was definitely difficult.”
Hensby and his wife, Kim, got married in 2009, after which time their son Caden, now 11, was born. Mark’s son from a previous relationship, Chase, was 11 when Mark and Kim married.
In 2017, when Caden was diagnosed as being on the spectrum of autism, Hensby’s commitment to his family and son never wavered. He began educating himself on the inner workings of his son and learning a lot about autism.
“He's a great kid,” Hensby said. “He's a love of my life. He's intelligent and has come a long way from where he was five years ago with all the help. All kids are special, but I think kids on the spectrum of autism are so special.”
In an effort to provide Caden as normal of a life as possible, Mark and Kim opted to proceed with his educational experience at a traditional school. What the couple experienced, though, was frustration.
“It's sad that they get treated differently because my boy is in a normal school,” Hensby said. “He has issues that other kids don't, but we wanted him to be in that school. He's having a really hard time now, so it's been tough.”
Mark and Kim are keeping their best foot forward in a tireless effort to help provide for Caden as normal of a life as possible. That, Mark insists, is the goal.
In 94 PGA TOUR starts between 2007 and 2022, Hensby collected just four top-10 finishes.
Following a T7 at the Puerto Rico Open in his first of five TOUR starts last season, Hensby followed with four missed cuts. The ensuing result was a tough conversation with Kim about his future – or, lack thereof – in the game of golf. Hensby openly talked about the possibility of retirement.
This past December, a then-50-year-old Hensby and his wife talked long and hard about how to best keep one another united in their effort to provide the necessary support for Caden.
“Everything was re-evaluated with my wife over Christmas,” he said. “With Caden on the spectrum, she has to deal with a lot more than most parents. That was part of the reason I was going to call it quits. I just couldn't give them enough time.”
What Mark and Kim agreed on last December was to keep professional golf in the picture, but when he’s home, Mark is to be truly home and focused on his family.
“Kim has had to deal with a lot on her own, mentally and physically,” Hensby said. “But, she sees what I'm about and why I still want to pursue this. I want to make his life easier. I want to make her life easier. So, that talk around Christmas was tough, but it was good.”
Genuinely poised to walk away from the very game that served him a lifeline as a frightened young kid, Hensby knew he needed to do what his father had never done for his family; be there.
But early this year, only a few months removed from that Christmas conversation, Hensby posted a solo second-place finish at the Trophy Hassan II in Morocco.
“It's going to make it easier to keep my card for sure this year,” Hensby said of his PGA TOUR Champions playing prospects and scheduling ability. “Any time you have good finishes, it breeds confidence. You can act confident, but until you have some success, it's pretty much just in your head. Morocco helped with the year going forward and, hopefully, created some momentum.”
By his own math, Hensby took home more money from his second-place finish in Morocco than he had, collectively, in the last two years.
Since turning 50 late last June, Hensby has made a total of 13 starts on PGA TOUR Champions. In addition to the runner-up finish in Morocco, he has posted two third-place finishes: one at the 2022 U.S. Senior Open Championship and one at the 2023 Cologuard Classic – which granted him access to this week’s Hoag Classic.
“Financially, you want to be able to supply the best resources for your kid, especially my little boy,” Hensby said. “People think you just make that sort of money in a week, but there's so much more prep and lead-up work. There’s so much more that people don't see. So, yes, this all definitely validates what Kim and I talked about and where we want to go for the next few years… for our boy.”
For all the pain and suffering Hensby was subjected to in his own family home as a little boy, rather than follow in his father’s footprints, Hensby emerged from the ashes of his past and continues to rise above. He did so by way of the directions in which he has chosen to travel.
“The way my dad was to me is scarring, because I know how I am to my kids,” Hensby said. “I never heard ‘I love you.’ There just wasn’t ever anything positive, even towards the end of his life. I never got any of that. It’s really hard for a kid. There are still times, actually a few times a week, when I think about it. It never leaves you. It’s with you for life.”
Hensby admitted that before having kids of his own, he never knew for sure exactly how he would fare as a father, especially after having endured the relentless pain and sadness brought on by his own father.
“It didn’t take long for my kids to realize I was going to be a great dad,” Hensby said, fighting back tears. “I never wanted to be like my dad. I made a 360 turn straight away. I hug Caden and tell him I love him every day.”
Even though Mark had long since distanced himself from his father leading up to his 1999 death, he recalls confronting his dad with one final question: “Why did you treat us the way you did?”
“It was all I knew how to do,” was his father’s only response.
“At that, I said, ‘Well, all I know is not to treat my kids the way you treated us’, said Hensby. “In that way, he made me a better dad for sure.”
Once again, Hensby chose a higher road. And, for that, he’s in a better place. More importantly to him, though, is that everyone in his life is, too.
“I think what I’m most proud of now is what I am for my kids,” Hensby said. “I know my kids will always be able to look at me and say with confidence ‘He was a great dad’. I would like to be remembered as someone who was a hard worker. I think a lot of people misunderstand me as a person, but they don’t see a lot of the things I’ve dealt with in my life. But, more than anything, I’d most like for my kids to know their dad loves them, that he would do anything for them and that he will be there for them forever and ever.”