In 2016, Rebecca Lee-Bentham announced that she was going to retire from professional golf and, along with it, her dream to play on the LPGA. It was a tough decision to make and one that many players dread having to contemplate. Now, after almost four years, she has returned. But, after a promising start to her 2020 season, with a T13 finish, the unthinkable happened – the international medical emergency that is Covid19.
With the extra downtime, we recently caught up with her as she spoke with us from her home in Toronto.
After exchanging our "good mornings", we settle into our conversation. We start by discussing her opening event in 2020 at the Symetra Tour's Florida's Natural Charity Classic, where Lee-Bentham finished T-13. She had a rough start on the opening day, posting a 78 before rebounding for the next two rounds, shooting minus -1 (71) both days, with a final score of four over (+4) for the 54 - hole event. As we chat about her opening event, a little bit of excitement creeps into her voice, describing how her last few holes on the first day helped her get back on track. Reflecting on her first round, "it wasn't my best round, putts were lipping out, little things were just not quite right and my rhythm was just off a little. But, on the last couple of holes something clicked. I had a solid finish and I just knew that I could carry this (type of play) over to the next day, and I did. I was pleased because the last two days were cold with tough playing conditions and I scored well."
After gaining confidence from her strong finish in the last two rounds she was feeling upbeat about her ability to "right the ship" after her rough start. She shares with me that one of the things that has changed about her and her game has been the ability to self correct on the course and in competition. "Before, when I was playing, if something was not working, I would seek out my coach or someone to help me fix my swing. I could not do it for myself. Now, I've gained that ability. I have learned to correct my swing when I am playing. I know that if I am turning the ball over and hitting a draw, I can correct it".
That first event of the 2020 season was held on March 2 - 8th in Winter Haven, Florida. It was also the last event to be played before the Covid19 medical emergency brought the tour to a screeching halt. "I was actually visiting friends in Naples (Florida) when I found out that the tour was being suspended. I went to visit them after the Charity Classic as we had a week break before the next event in Florida. Then the season stopped and the next few events were cancelled."
The interruption to the professional golf season, is a new experience for players – no one playing on the LPGA, PGA or the developmental tours was alive when the Second World War interrupted sports. The suspension in play brought Lee-Bentham back home to her native Canada. "It was a big adjustment at first; if you remember, because we were returning from outside the country we were required to quarantine ourselves for two weeks." We then chat a little about how she has coped with the down time and what she's doing to keep herself focused and ready for when play eventually resumes.
"It was a big challenge at first, especially since I was not used to this (being isolated at home). It's been tough too because the Symetra season doesn't really get going until March while the LPGA starts in January and February. So my off season has been really long and now we're back to another sort of off season." We continue discussing the challenges brought about as a result of the "social distancing" and "self isolating" recommendations. She shares how it was an abrupt change for her, "at first, I had plans for my birthday. My boyfriend was going to join me in California, it was going to be fun, but that had to be cancelled; it was tough, mentally tough at first, but I have adjusted" she says.
"My gym is closed and the one in my building is closed so all I can do is a little bit of work here in my home. I have a mat set up and I do my stretching as much as I can. I just don't want to fall behind in my preparation, I keep asking myself if I am doing enough." I ask her if she has a favourite exercise or program that she follows for her "in home" fitness sessions. "Oh, I do have a favourite workout, I like to work on my full body and my core, there are some good programs on YouTube for them", she says, then telling me that she likes working with a trainer or coach too as she finds their enthusiasm and energy motivating,"it's also good because I have a second pair of eyes to help me."
She tells me about some of her other activities that keep her busy in this quiet period, "I have been doing some cooking and some reading. I really like the reading, it is something that I have not done for a while." As I listen, I start to form the impression that this young woman is taking the time to rediscover herself, enjoying some of the simpler things in life that bring her joy. "I've also started playing the piano again" she says. "I used to play when I was young, but I stopped playing for a long time, but with all of this (down time) I started to play again; it has been really good."
The conversation segues into her previous life on tour and her decision to walk away from the game in 2016. As I listen to her share her story, another recurring theme seems to come into focus – how she used to approach golf in her previous stint on tour and the influence it has had on her both on and off of the golf course.
"... there were lots of times before when I missed a cut by a single stroke, it was hard on me, but now, I can deal with it much better."
"When I was playing (before), there was always so much pressure. At first my father would take me to golf practice and he would drive me everywhere for golf. Whenever I played, I wanted to try so hard because I didn't want to let everyone down." The pressure continued as she turned professional after her freshman year at the University of Texas (Longhorns), "After being on tour for a while, I started to find that I was questioning myself. I was always wanting to make a good impact in golf and then it became too negative. My results started to drop, I started to miss cuts and lots of time by only one shot. It was tough because I was raised to succeed and to keep working at everything."
Anyone that plays the game of golf for any length of time will start to appreciate that this sport, like others, becomes a game of "inches". An inch more to the left and the putt drops; approach the green a couple of inches more to the right, and the ball stays below the hole for an easier putt, move the ball an inch forward in the stance and the driver approaches the ball on a slight upswing. This can be frustrating for the recreational player, but it can also intensify significantly for the professional. After all, professional golf is one of the most competitive ways to earn a living. There is no minimum wage in golf; what you earn is directly related to how well you play and not just how well you play, but how well you play against others.
After a couple of promising years on the LPGA, Lee-Bentham found herself on the Symetra Tour in 2016. "It was a totally different experience (compared to the LPGA), the money is less and the way that the players are treated is so different" she says. It was during her time on the Symetra Tour that she reassessed her path and decided to walk away from professional golf.
Once she was back home, she turned her attention to teaching. In an interview with Golf Canada, she credited her teaching with helping her to rediscover a passion for competitive golf, saying to David Li, "But over the past couple of years – as I was teaching the game to others – I’ve grown a lot as a person and in my understanding of how to mentally approach the game. I’ve also learned to plan and practise more efficiently".
That theme comes through quite clearly in our conversation, more so when she shares with me how she has evolved, "there were lots of times before when I missed a cut by a single stroke, it was hard on me, but now, I can deal with it much better." A recent example that leaps to my mind is her performance on the LPGA's "qualifying series", the former "Q-School", where she struggled at one point, but then regrouped and played well coming into the final stretch, posting a final round 68 to get her to -3 for the event. "When I started, I had a number in mind, four under for the round. I thought that score would get me inside the cut for Stage 3. I was 3 over par (+3) after just 4 holes, so I was behind already, but I recovered and I shot 7 under (-7) over the last 12 holes and I did reach my goal of shooting -4 for the round." While many thought her score would be enough to get her to the next stage, fate struck again. She missed the cut – by one stroke yet again, "before, (in 2016 and prior), I was not sure how to deal with it and now I know I can."
As I sit and listen to her tell the story, I do have a growing appreciation for her and how she has progressed in her life, learning how to deal with things like adversity. I think of her comments early on in our conversation, where she tells me about how she has learned how to adapt on course, learning to "self correct" during competition. The confidence in her voice is telling, especially as she spoke with pride about her being able to go out and shoot her number on the final day.
While she shot the number that she wanted, she still came up short by one stroke but, this time she seems to have taken it in stride, learning from her previous experiences of how to prepare herself mentally for all of the challenges that come in life. There is a well deserved satisfaction that she can take from knowing that she can pick a number and achieve it. That's a level of confidence that she can build on, helping her in her pursuit of getting back on the LPGA. In an age where the women's game sees teen prodigies become more and more visible, there is something refreshing to Rebecca Lee-Bentham. I hope that she builds on it and gets herself back to the LPGA; if she succeeds, and I don't hesitate to believe that she will, she will have earned it.
Q & A – Lightning Round
Q1: What is your “hometown”?
A: – Toronto!
Q2: What University/College did you attend?
A: – University of Texas at Austin (the home of the Longhorns) where she was one of the key players as they won the "Big 12" championship in 2011.
Q3: What is your best golf memory?
A: – Winning the Ontario Women's Amateur championship as a 15 year old.
Q4: What is your favourite fitness activity? (gym or training wise)
A: – Pilates in the gym, but I really like hiking.
Q5: What is your favourite course that you have played on Tour?
A: – Oakmont, my first LPGA event qualifying for the US Women's Open.
Q6: Who is your favourite person to play a round of golf with?
A: – Bill Phelps -- a good friend and CEO in the food services industry.
Q7: Who is the toughest competitor in women’s golf today?
A: – It has to be Jin Young Ko, she's world number 1! And Brooke Henderson; to beat her you have to play well, she won't beat herself.
Q8: What is your most memorable golf shot or putt?
A: – My first hole in one! It was a few months ago at the "Journey Course" at Pechanga Resort in Temecula, California and it was 15 years in the making!
Q9: If you could win one event – which would it be?
A: – The US Women's Open Championship.
Q10: You get to invite a foursome for a round of golf. Besides you, who would you like to play with (past or present)?
A: – Jeremy Lin, Serge Ibaka and Will Smith!
WITB – What’s in your bag for 2020?
Unfortunately, with the interruption in the season, I have not been able to schedule my full fitting yet. But, I'm so thankful that this year I am being sponsored by TaylorMade Canada and they will be supplying me with a full bag. So this will include everything from their new driver, woods, hybrids, irons and more. The only thing I will be keeping is my putter -- a TaylorMade Spider! I am also playing the TP5X golf ball from TaylorMade as well.