LPGA Player comes out of “retirement” to Play the 76th US Women’s Open
There is no shortage of storylines coming into this year’s U.S. Women’s Open. There is Nelly Korda trying to secure a win and her first major championship to shed the informal title of the best player to not yet win a major. Then there is world number one – Jin Young Ko looking to recapture the form that made her the most imperious player in 2019. Will Inbee Park, the only Hall of Fame player active on tour, be able to add to her 7 – major titles? And of course, how will the best players in the world tackle the unique challenges and problems that the Lake Course presents? These are just some of the storylines and questions that look to be answered over the next four days.
One of the lesser-known storylines though, involves Canadian player, Rebecca Lee-Bentham and her return to competitive golf after retiring in 2016 to focus on a teaching career. She played on both the LPGA and the Symetra tours from 2012 thru to 2016 before deciding that she was going to return back home to Toronto and pursue a different life in golf. Ironically, she credits teaching golf as having rekindled her passion for the sport and more importantly, her competitive desire. She returned to the Symetra Tour in 2020, finishing her first event with a share of 13th. Unfortunately, that was the only event she played in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic brought her restart in professional golf to a halt.
Fast forward to 2021, and Rebecca Lee-Bentham was finally able to return to the Symetra Tour to pick up where she left off. She managed to play in 5-tour events before she competed in the 2-day Qualifier held in Corinth, Texas at the Oakmont Country Club. She finished at -5 under and third place to capture one of the three spots at Olympic Club in San Francisco.
In many respects, she has been preparing herself over her lifetime to be in this position to compete this week. “I feel like, now that I'm back at it, it's a different experience. I feel like I'm more grateful being out here and just trying to take the opportunity to learn. I think that's the coaching side of me. Just trying not to take any day for granted and just trying to get better each day is kind of my goal. I'm just telling myself that I've prepared my whole life for this week, … I've been out on Tour before, drawing from that experience, and that new perspective of just trying to enjoy it is what I'm kind of taking into this week.”
Helping her prepare for the tough test ahead, Lee-Bentham played a practice round with 3 – major champions in Eun-Hee Ji (2009 USWO), Hyo Joo Kim (2014 Evian), and Sung Hyun Park (2017 USWO and 2018 PGA). Practising with such elite players enabled her to gain additional insight into their thinking, how they approach the course and what they do differently from others.
“I played with three major champions today. I kind of did that on purpose. I saw the tee sheet, and I thought why not? Why not play with the best in the world again? I'm all about the experiences that I get in life. Not often do you get to play with three major champions in one group. So take advantage of that. I know Eun-Hee from the past, but Hyo Joo and Sung Hyun Park are new since I've been away. Obviously, I've heard of them because they've dominated both in Korea and the U.S. So just trying to learn from them, what they do differently, and try to draw from that.”
One thing is certain and that is the players are finding the Lake Course to be very challenging and something that they have not experienced much. The course set up with narrow fairways and thick deep rough requires a whole lot of focus.
“Yeah, all the players are like what is this? It's so hard. The rough is super deep. You lose your ball if you don't really keep an eye on it. I'm hoping there's a lot of spotters on each hole because you can think that you hit a decent drive, just be a foot in the rough and lose your ball. A lot of girls are practicing hitting out of them. A lot of us have to literally chip out with a wedge and try to make up and down. It is very, very penalizing. It's all part of the fun challenge.”
As for Lee-Bentham, she needs to get off the tee box in good shape, finding fairways and giving herself the best opportunity to reach the greens in regulation. It’s a strategy of playing conservative golf. As Ben Hogan said, the golfer who makes the least mistakes wins and that is a sound strategy for U.S. Open Championships, regardless of whether it’s a men’s or women’s event.
“I think for me, as long as I kind of find fairways and hit my driver decent, I think I'm someone that kind of relies on my short game heavily. So, I feel like -- I think for all the players, I think, if you're hitting it in the fairway, you're making the course a lot easier than if you're hitting it in the rough. So that's, key.”
A good frame of mind is also important when subjected to what could be four grueling days of golf and that means playing within one’s own game, playing to one’s own strengths. It is a strategy that Lee-Bentham is well aware of.
“I want to just focus on my game because I sometimes get caught up in how other girls may hit it, if they're really long. Yeah, basically, if they're long, I would consider myself a little shorter player off the tee. So, I've got to focus on my game, what I have to hit, not trying to power another iron, if I need to hit hybrid, just because other girls are hitting irons and stuff like that. Trusting my game, doing my best with picking good targets. I think that's really important out here. Yeah, just staying in control of what I can control instead of worrying about other things.”
The approach of taking each day as it comes, staying focused and playing in the moment are not mere buzz words – they will be important for Rebecca Lee-Bentham. It will be a strategy to not let her mind wander away from the immediate task at hand. Nonetheless, it is not every day that one gets to compete in a U.S. Women’s Open, and she has gained perspective in her young life to know that she should also enjoy the experience of being between the ropes, competing with the best women in the world again.