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Golf Rebecca Lee-Bentham seeks redemption, and an LPGA return, after first run that was ‘not fun at all’

Rebecca Lee-Bentham tees off during a round at the Summit Golf Club in Richmond Hill, Ont., in July.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Rebecca Lee-Bentham’s first go-round on the LPGA Tour did not end well. She suffered not only declining performance and injuries as the years wore on, but also unhappiness and a fractured relationship with her father, who was also her coach and caddy.

The experience was so dissatisfying that she quit the tour, halting a playing career that just a few years earlier had seemed full of promise.

But with the passing of time and a renewed passion for the game, she has decided to take another shot at tour golf. Her comeback begins in earnest on Thursday in California in the first stage of the LPGA Tour’s qualifying tournament, better known as Q-school.

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The 27-year-old from Toronto will be among hundreds of women who are trying to advance through the first two stages of Q-school and then earn a playing card on the LPGA Tour for 2020 by finishing in the top 45 at the third and final stage.

If Lee-Bentham can get that far, she will have also earned a shot at redemption; a second chance to correct her initial foray into professional golf, which she remembers as “not fun at all.”

“It kind of crushed me when she decided to pack it in, although I do know and understand the inside [story] of what was going on there,” said Derek Ingram, who coached Lee-Bentham for a few years while she was on Canada’s national amateur team. “Now I’m thrilled that she’s trying again because I think she’ll have very good success.”

The odds of reaching the world’s top tour for women are long, but Lee-Bentham has beaten them before.

Shortly after dropping out of the University of Texas as a 19-year-old to take a crack at pro golf, she breezed through the 2011 Q-school and suddenly found herself playing among the women she had idolized growing up.

Her immediate success seemed a natural progression from her elite amateur days, when her triumphs included winning the Ontario Women’s Amateur as a 15-year-old and later the Canadian Junior Girls and Canadian Women’s Amateur championships.

But the pro game’s learning curve was steep in her early years on tour. While there were breakthrough moments, such as a career-best 11th-place finish at the Evian Championship in 2013 and a respectable US$118,000 in winnings that same year, there were also many weeks of bottom-of-the-pack finishes and missed cuts. Her declining results led to part-time status on the LPGA Tour and relegation to the second-tier Symetra Tour.

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Lee-Bentham concedes she put too much pressure on herself during her first stint on the tour.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Her performance inside the ropes, though, wasn’t the half of it. She struggled on the practice range, too, trying to make sense of all the advice she was getting from her father, Ken Lee, and others.

“My mentality was a little different then,” Lee-Bentham said recently before leaving for California. “It wasn’t as much fun for me before. I was more like, ‘I have to do it.’ And it was more like people giving me information and I was just kind of following it – it wasn’t me trying to figure it out.”

Lee-Bentham acknowledged she was a perfectionist in a sport that defies perfection. She also conceded she put too much pressure on herself.

“You’re never going to be happy or satisfied when you always compare yourself to others, which is what I did a lot back then, too,” she said during a candid conversation about her past and future, sitting on a bench in the shade near the driving range at Ladies Golf Club of Toronto, a course in suburban Thornhill, Ont., that’s among the Greater Toronto Area facilities where she practises.

“I was comparing myself to other players, wanting what they have. Even my dad would do that to me, too. [He would say,] ‘That person practises more than you. Look at them, they’re doing better than you.’ He was always comparing.”

The comparisons were but one sign of a straining relationship with her father.

Lee introduced her to the game at the age of 12 and was her first coach, taking control of her career through junior and amateur golf and into the pro ranks. He even retired early from his engineering job with a technology company to become her caddy after she joined the LPGA Tour.

This sort of parental involvement isn’t unusual in women’s professional golf. Fathers and mothers are ubiquitous at LPGA Tour events, especially among the contingent of Asian players, although it crosses cultural boundaries, too. Canadian star Brooke Henderson’s entourage, for example, usually includes her father, Dave, and mother, Darlene, as well as her sister, Brittany, who’s also her caddy.

It can work for some players. But it doesn’t pay off for everyone.

Lee-Bentham said she knows her father meant well. He instilled in her a fierce work ethic, telling her she had to practise harder than others because she started playing relatively late in life and had fewer resources at her disposal, and he gave her parental protection as she embarked as a young adult into a grown-up’s world.

But being together 24/7, the long practice sessions and the pressure had a dark side. “It’s tough,” Lee-Bentham said. “When you’re growing up and you’re in your early 20s, you’re trying to be more independent, but then you have someone that kind of blocks that. You butt heads a lot. You want to figure things out on your own, but they don’t want you making mistakes.”

The Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in 2016 was her swan song on the LPGA Tour.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Lee acknowledges they both felt stress, mentally to succeed and physically to keep their bodies healthy. Lee had knee problems, Lee-Bentham back troubles. “We did have some issues, but our final goal was we were trying to be better than everybody else,” he said.

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Her growing unhappiness, diminishing results and injuries ultimately prompted her to pack it in. The Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in 2016 was her swan song on the LPGA Tour.

“When I stopped playing,” she said, “me and my dad didn’t have the greatest relationship. There was a lot of bitterness.”

As difficult as it was to stop chasing the dream, it proved to be a good move. She directed her energies into teaching golf, fulfilling a long-held desire to give back to the game.

Working out of Angus Glen Golf Club in suburban Markham, Ont., and the Markham Golf Dome, not far from the Toronto neighbourhood of Scarborough where she was born, Lee-Bentham built a robust roster of junior and adult clients. She also developed a new understanding of golf’s technical skills and how to articulate them to others.

“I knew how to do it, but couldn’t explain it," she said. “The more I got comfortable explaining it, the more I understood it, and I then I could do it even better myself.” She believes her fundamentals are stronger now than when she was a teenage amateur phenom or on the LPGA Tour.

Just as important to her, she put her personal life in order, too. She said she mended her relationship with her father – “He knows I’m mature enough to figure things out on my own; he sees I enjoy it a lot more; we are both a lot happier” – and she was able to attend the weddings of both of her siblings, Paul and Sarah, and later be on hand for the birth of Paul’s son, her first nephew.

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Lee agrees. He describes their relationship as “better than ever” now and added he’s content to support her from a distance this time.

During Lee-Bentham’s 2½ years of teaching, she was often asked about returning to competitive golf, but had no interest. Then a confluence of people and events last December made her reconsider.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

“I’m glad she does that, going back,” he said during a telephone interview from his tennis club. “She still has a lot of talent in her. I told her, ‘You can teach your whole life, whenever you want to. But being in tournament competitive golf is limited.’ ”

When she’s in Toronto, Lee-Bentham lives with her parents in a small condo. The household is harmonious and she says she is happy.

“Because I was always doing what other people told me to do, I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do all the time," a wiser and more mature Lee-Bentham said. "But now it’s like I have a choice. I have the choice to practise; if I want to see friends and family, I can.”

During Lee-Bentham’s 2½ years of teaching, she was often asked about returning to competitive golf, but had no interest. Then a confluence of people and events last December made her reconsider.

Past acquaintances and new people in her life had, simultaneously but without knowing one another, encouraged her to try again, and they all offered different pieces of support – including the US$2,500 entry fee into Q-school, a place to stay in California over the winter, a course in California at which to practise and a car to drive.

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Lee-Bentham took the offers as a sign. So she wound down her teaching schedule in early 2019, pulled out the set of old TaylorMade irons she once used on the LPGA Tour, headed to California and returned to the range to practise the game that has occupied more than half her life.

If she had any concerns that a lengthy time away from competition would leave her too rusty, she put them to rest immediately. She held the first-round lead in May at the Bermuda Grey Goose World Par 3 Championships, playing against a field that included Canada’s top male club professionals and international veterans such as PGA Tour-winner Chip Beck and Englishman Barry Lane, who went on to win the Par 3. (Lee-Bentham finished in 10th.)

Then in July, Lee-Bentham came from behind to steal the DCM PGA Women’s Championship, a prestigious Canadian event whose past champions include Henderson and fellow Canucks Lorie Kane and Alena Sharp. This year’s edition was held at Ladies Golf Club. Her final round of nine-under-par 63 not only vaulted her to the top of the leaderboard but also signalled she still has the skills to dominate a course and come through in the clutch.

In a cruel stroke of irony, the DCM victory earned her a berth in next week’s CP Women’s Open, which will be held in her backyard at Magna Golf Club in Aurora, Ont., but she won’t be able to attend because she’s at Q-school. Nevertheless, it was building block. Soon after, she won the PGA of Ontario Women’s Championship by eight shots, albeit against a small, regional field.

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The trophies bode well for her important week ahead at Mission Hills Country Club, the same facility in Rancho Mirage where the LPGA Tour holds the ANA Inspiration, one of its five major tournaments. Lee-Bentham might not jump into Poppie’s Pond after her final round on Aug. 25 if she advances to the second stage, as the ANA champion traditionally does, but she’ll have reason to celebrate clearing the first significant hurdle in her comeback.

“Not having control of her situation [before], probably the only way out for her was to quit and start over on her own terms,” said Ingram, her former national coach. “So I am excited that she is going to have that opportunity. I believe a fresh new vibe and attitude will be really good for her and I think she’ll love the game again. Regardless of the success, I really commend her for challenging herself.”

MORE CANADIANS TO WATCH

The LPGA Tour begins its three-stage qualifying school next week in the California desert. The first stage will be held over three courses in Rancho Mirage and the surrounding area, with the top 90 or so finishers advancing to the second stage in Florida in October. The top 45 finishers at the third stage earn 2020 LPGA Tour cards and the rest are guaranteed status on the second-tier Symetra Tour. At least 16 Canadians will be among the approximately 300 entrants next week in the first stage. Besides former LPGA Tour player Rebecca Lee-Bentham, here are three Canadians to watch:

Selena Costabile: A classically trained pianist and speaker of five languages (and counting), the 21-year-old fledgling pro from Thornhill, Ont., is also very accomplished at golf – she won a pro tournament as an amateur and has played in two LPGA Tour events.

Anna Young: The five-time Saskatchewan Women’s Amateur champion has been a pro for a few years and has at least a couple of mini-tour victories to her credit and about 20 starts on the Symetra Tour.

Naomi Ko: The former national amateur team member from Victoria has a sense of occasion – she’s played her way into two U.S. Women’s Opens.

Other Canadians entered in the first stage as of Aug. 6: Mackenzie Barrie, Nayan Calsin Murdoch, Usu Gloria Choi (a), Caroline Ciot, Josée Doyon, Hannah Hellyer, Casey MacNeil, Michelle Ruiz (a), Sabrina Sapone, Kelsey Sear (a), Joo Youn Seo, Alison Timlin.

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