This week's New Zealand Open could ignite Michael Hendry's bid to break into golf's world top 50.
The New Zealand No 1 has been steadily rising through the global order over the past couple of seasons, qualifying for two of four world golf championship tournaments last year - the most significant events in the sport outside majors.
At one of those WGC tournaments, at the famed TPC Blue Monster course in Doral, Miami, Hendry took on the best in the business, including Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson, and was on course for a top 10 finish - only to lose his touch on the greens over the weekend and finish tied on 58th.
The experience has been significant for the 34-year-old Aucklander - evidence he can realise his top-50 aspiration.
"At Doral it felt like I belonged and could have easily finished in the top 10 - had I just maintained my form," Hendry told the Sunday Star-Times.
"It was one of the biggest tournaments I've ever played and there was a stellar field - 49 of the world's top 50 were there.
"Unfortunately I didn't have a great weekend; I was leading through nine holes and in the top 10 through 36 holes.
"I was holding my own but the putter deserted me a bit over the weekend. These things happen in golf, it's just a shame I didn't play my best. But it was a great environment to be in and learn."
Prior to Doral, Hendry was also able to glean insight from a practice round with world No 2 Adam Scott. And word is that Scott, who days later won the US Masters, was so impressed by Hendry he asked friends: where has this guy been hiding? "It's always a privilege to play with the top players, it was a cool experience," Hendry said.
"I'd met Scotty a couple of times previously but never played with him. You really see the benchmark of where you're at and what needs to improve, and what your strengths are in comparison with them too."
Since Doral, and becoming the first player to win consecutive NZ PGA titles since Frank Nobilo in 1987, Hendry has been disappointed with his form.
Part of the problem, Hendry said, had been trying to customise his driver properly, a normally solid area of his game.
"I had my first year on tour in Japan last year; I ended up not doing as well as I'd hoped but I retained my card," he said.
"I ended up playing so much golf, I got into some bad habits with my swing. So the last month or so I've been working hard with my coach [Craig Dixon] to get back on track and everything seems to be panning out.
"I was struggling in particular off the tee. But that was probably a mixture of not quite having the right combination of club head and shaft in my driver, combined with technical errors which had started to creep in," Hendry said.
"So far this year it's been really encouraging. There's no reason I can't get back to where driving was a real strength."
After starting 2014 with a runner-up finish at the Victorian PGA, Hendry hopes this week at The Hills he can recapture the kind of form with which he claimed the 2013 and 2012 NZ PGA titles - to become the first Kiwi to win the NZ Open in 11 years.
"It's actually a good thing that I'm not going into it as the defending champion.
"I'd say the field for the NZ Open this year is slightly stronger than last year's NZ PGA.
"If I play my best, it will be good enough."
- Sunday Star Times
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