The last time a Canadian finished on top of a major tour qualifying school the performance led to a tremendous career that is still unfolding. That golfer, of course, was Mike Weir. He won the 1998 PGA Tour qualifying school, picked up his first win the next year at the Air Canada Championship in Vancouver, and went on to great success. Weir, now 42 and fighting hard to recover some form, won the 2003 Masters and has seven other PGA Tour victories on his impressive curriculum vita.
This is in the way of a preamble to another Canadian finishing on top of a qualifying school, this time for the LPGA. Rebecca Lee-Bentham shot a final round, five-under-par 67 at the LPGA International Golf Club’s Champions course in Daytona Beach, Fla. to finish as co-medalist with Thailand teenager Moriya Jutanugarn. My colleague Jeff Brooke wrote about the final day’s play here.
I caught up with Lee-Bentham the morning after her final round. She’d holed a 60-foot putt on the last hole to tie Jutanugarn, at 18 her junior by two years. Lee-Bentham was still in Daytona Beach, where she lives in the winter. The Torontonian’s parents are with her. They’re on the road with their daughter in support of her career, and, in fact, her dad caddies for her. She lives with her sister in North York when she returns north.
Lee-Bentham will be playing her second year on the LPGA Tour. She made only four cuts in the 14 LPGA events she played this year, and won $16,449 to finish 134th on the money list. She’s been a professional since Nov., 2011, having gone to the play for pay side of the game after spending a year at the University of Texas in Austin. Her first year wasn’t a big success on the scorecard, but Lee-Bentham said she learned a lot. She shot 67 a year ago in the final round of qualifying school to make it to the 2012 LPGA Tour - the same score she put on the board on Sunday.
“It was an unbelievable feeling last year to shoot 67 and win my card,” Lee-Bentham said. “I would have been happy playing the Symetra Tour (a developmental tour). It was the greatest blessing to play the LPGA Tour this year and gain experience.”
Lee-Bentham has certainly progressed at every level. She was a member of Golf Canada’s developmental team for three years, and then for its national team for two years.
“That did so much for me,” she said. “I had so many opportunities to play tournament, and to travel around the world and get more experience. Getting an exempstion into the Canadian [Women’s] Open also helped me.”
Dr. Greg Well, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto, was Team Canada’s national director for sport science when Lee-Bentham was on the national team. He worked with her there for a year. Wells left his position with Golf Canada after 10 years, and continued to work with Lee-Bentham for another year after she graduated from the national team. He liked what he saw.
“She followed the plan,” Wells said Monday. “She’s a committed athlete. Maybe she even tried too hard in her physical training in her first year as a pro.”
Lee-Bentham will continue to work hard as she approaches her second year on the LPGA Tour, but with more insight into what she needs to focus on. As Wells said, it can be tricky to incorporate a training regimen into a life that consists of so much travel. But it’s necessary, and all players today work out.
Wells sent Bentham a congratulatory tweet after her final qualifying round. In it, he wrote, “Now the real work begins.”
“Every step a player takes,” Wells said, “it’s harder to get to the next level.”
Lee-Bentham was a Clublink member when she took up the game, playing much of her early golf at the Station Creek club in Gormley, Ont. She plays and practices now at Clublink’s superb Wyndance club in Uxbridge, Ont., which has a terrific practice facility; her good friend and Wyndance director of instruction Jason Helman bases himself there. When up north, she works with Don Lee, a teaching pro at the Markham Golf Dome.
In Daytona Beach, Lee-Bentham works with Craig Shankland, a PGA Master professional who was very close with the late Moe Norman. Lee-Bentham, like all golfers, wants to take her range game to the course more often.
“Every aspect of your game has to be strong on the LPGA,” Lee-Bentham said. “If I can hit it well seven out of 10 times on the range, why not 10 out of 10 on the course? You need 10 out of 10 there.”
Even the best golfers meet that lofty goal infrequently, or rarely. But Lee-Bentham has demonstrated twice that she has the game to reach the LPGA Tour. Her goal now is to stay there. The signs are promising.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein