Laetitia Beck Israel’s first professional golfer


Laetitia Beck started playing golf when she was 9 years old. That fact itself may not be unusual, but take into account that Laetitia was living in Israel at the time, where there was (and is still) only one 18-hole golf course in the whole country and no professional golfers – then the story gets more interesting.

Laetitia was born in Antwerp, Belgium before her family moved to Israel when she was 6 years old. “I loved sports; even in Belgium I remember playing different sports,” says Laetitia. “Then when we moved to Israel, golf [became] my hobby. We had classes at the country club in the center of town.” Her family lived in Caesarea, where she played at the Caesarea Golf Club. Her parents also enjoyed the game, so they signed her and her twin sister, Olivia, up for lessons. Olivia quit soon after they started, but Laetitia kept at it.

When Laetitia was 12, the lead golf pro at the club told her and her mother that Laetitia should compete in the Israeli Ladies Championship. At that time, she had only competed in junior tournaments. In this competition, she would be playing against women four times her age! “My mom caddied for me, and I ended up winning,” she recounts of that day.

It was a big deal when she won – television, radio and newspapers in Israel covered her victory. At that time, in 2004, she was the youngest person ever to win the country’s championship. At Laetitia’s school the next day, they called all the students outside, announced that she had won and surprised her with a trophy.

After winning the Ladies Championship, she had to pick one sport on which to focus. Golf seemed the obvious choice, but Laetitia was also a fierce competitor in soccer and tennis, which she had played longer than golf. She knew she wanted to play professionally; she just had to decide which sport. She loved tennis, but as the only girl playing, it was often hard for her to find a partner to practice with her. Since golf is an individual sport, being the only girl didn’t matter. She picked golf.

FOCUS ON GOLF

She quit all other sports and started playing golf five days a week. “The next year, I really saw an improvement,” says Laetitia. “I started shooting even par. We would have the Israeli Open and then club championships every six months.” She started to win every tournament she entered – and not by a small margin; at times, she won by as many as 30 strokes.

When Laetitia was 13, her family realized that Israel lacked the resources, including professional training facilities and coaches, to provide her with a future in golf. “If I really wanted to get to the next level, I would have to leave Israel,” she says.

The Becks began researching their options. Another young golfer from Caesarea, Roi Steinberg, had left a couple of years earlier to attend the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. IMG is a boarding school that offers academic and athletic college-preparatory experiences in golf and seven other sports. The Becks decided to give IMG a try, thinking that the transition might be easier if Laetitia knew someone at the school. At 15, she left for the United States.

Laetitia says adjusting to a different culture, religion and language was more difficult than the actual move. She was always very independent in Israel, going to the golf course to practice after school before returning home in the evening. “I was used to being alone,” says Laetitia. “I think that is why it wasn’t as hard as people think to leave the country.”

Still, that first year was a struggle. She even thought of going back to Israel but realized that if she returned, she would probably end up quitting golf altogether. She spent time with Roi speaking Hebrew and playing tennis, but her socialization in general was limited. She concentrated on golf.

During her sophomore year in high school, college scouts started attending the tournaments. “I didn’t want to look at colleges; I wanted to turn professional right out of high school!” says Laetitia. But after some discussion with her parents, and a scholarship offer from Duke University in North Carolina, she set her sights on college. By the end of her senior year in high school, she was ranked in the top five junior golf players in the U.S.

In 2010, she started at Duke and joined the women’s golf team. The team of seven players played tournaments together. “It was fun! It was the first time I had a team,” says Laetitia. “When I played for Israel, we rarely had a team. I was usually the only one.”

She also became involved with the Jewish student community, which she had not experienced at IMG. “I keep kosher and it was much easier for me [at Duke] than in high school,” says Laetitia.

She longed to devote more attention to golf but soon realized the importance of academics. She found the sports/school balance and graduated with a degree in psychology with All-American honors in both her junior and senior years. She was also only the 11th Duke golfer to earn All-ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) accolades during each of her four years.

TIME TO TURN PRO

Laetitia’s goal after college was to become a professional player. “[I] always wanted to turn professional, I wanted to [play golf] for a living and represent Israel and my family,” she says. “I was happy to graduate and … concentrate entirely on golf instead of [playing] just a few hours a day.”

After graduation, Laetitia moved to Montreal, Canada, where she had gone during breaks at Duke. She divided her summers between Israel and time training with her coach, Andrew Phillips, at the Elm Ridge Country Club in Île Bizard, an island near Montreal.

Her first professional event took place in Canada in 2011. “I was still an amateur, but I qualified to play at the Canadian Women’s Open [at the Hillsdale Golf and Country Club],” says Laetitia. “It’s funny, because the tournament was held at a Jewish club. So my first professional event with the LPGA was as an amateur at a Jewish club.”

Laetitia’s focus now turned to getting her Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour card. Anyone can turn professional but qualifying for membership on the LPGA Tour is an arduous process. She began that process in 2010 with more than 400 other women golfers, whittling away at the competition in the three qualifying tournaments. The pool would eventually be narrowed down to 20 finalists who would receive cards.

Laetitia received her LPGA Tour card in December 2014 at age 22, becoming the first Israeli – man or woman – to qualify as a full-fledged member of any major golf tour. “I realized that it was the first time Israel had a player in the LPGA,” says Laetitia. “It was big news in the Israeli golf community.”

In the fall of 2014, when the chill was starting to settle on Canada, Laetitia wondered where she was going to stay for the winter. She was visiting Israel and playing golf with a friend from Belgium when he suggested that she stay with his family in Aventura, Florida, near Miami. They offered her a room in their home and the chance to play golf at the Turnberry Isle Miami Resort and Golf Club. She liked it so much, she decided to stay in Aventura – and Turnberry is currently sponsoring her. “It’s a resort with a lot of Jewish people. I love it there! Every other person is wearing a Star of David,” jokes Laetitia.

OLYMPIC MOMENT

Laetitia competed at ages 13, 17 and 21 in the the Maccabiah Games, also known as the “Jewish Olympics.” She took home gold medals in the individual competition at age 17 and in both individual and team competitions at age 21. But she also wanted to compete in the “real” Olympics.

In 2016, she qualified to compete in the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There was uncertainty about her uniform and equipment, because Israel had never sent a golfer to the Olympics. (In all fairness to Israel, these were the first Olympic Games to include golf since 1904.) Being the perfectionist she is, Laetitia took things into her own hands and designed her own uniform, shoes and golf bag. “It took me a long time to design my golf bag, because I wanted [it] to represent the culture and religion – not just Israel,” explains Laetitia. “To me, that was the most important thing – the bag. I didn’t want to have anybody else do it. Appearance is important if you want to represent something very important to you.”

Laetitia is extremely proud of her Jewish identity and was uncomfortable hearing that she shouldn’t wear her uniform with the Star of David emblem outside of the Olympic Village.

Fortunately, she has not encountered much anti-Semitism on tour and in her everyday life “I don’t fear it as much because I [would] much rather show where I come from … than not show it at all,” says Laetitia. “I don’t think it’s a reason for me to hide anything. I’m not afraid of something happening if I show where I come from.” However, she did encounter anti-Semitism at the Olympics ­– surprisingly from the inhabitants within the walls of the Olympic Village. It happened before the Opening Ceremonies, when all of the athletes were headed to buses transporting them to the Maracanã Stadium. The Israeli team walked behind the athletes from Jordan and Iraq, which made Laetitia a little nervous, though everything appeared normal. As the Israelis went to board their assigned bus, a member of the Lebanese team, which had already boarded, stood in front of the bus and ordered the driver to close the door and not allow the Israeli team on the bus.

“That was the first time I had experienced anything like that,” recounts Laetitia. “We were stuck outside, not knowing where to go. The volunteers were saying ‘They don’t want you on the bus’ and were trying to find us space somewhere else. [It was] frustrating to see how this was happening at the biggest event in the world.”

Around 30 Israeli athletes were not allowed on the bus. “We were furious,” says Laetitia. “Everyone was watching us and we didn’t understand why they wouldn’t just take the Lebanese team out, find them space and let us on the bus.” But it didn’t go that way. The Israeli team waited while the volunteers broke them into smaller groups to go on other buses. Then another volunteer called the Israeli athletes off of the other buses, adding to the confusion. “But they got us another bus – for just us,” she says. “That’s what we had to deal with before the Opening Ceremonies.”

Fortunately, Laetitia had no further contact with the Lebanese athletes for the rest of the Olympic Games and no more unpleasant encounters. No other Middle Eastern countries participated in golf, so she was with other golfers during the day and with her Israeli teammates when she returned to the Olympic Village in the evening.

THE PASSION BEHIND THE PLAYER

When asked what has influenced her most, Laetitia’s answer is not another golfer or athlete –  it’s her history. “I think of how my grandparents had to go through a lot of things [that] I didn’t have to,” says Laetitia solemnly. “What my grandparents came from – almost dying – and I can be at this level [of success]. Two of my grandparents were in Auschwitz and the other two were in hiding in Belgium. I felt I had to do something to show the world that we are strong people.” Three of her grandparents (one grandfather passed away before she was born) have witnessed her success.

“When Israelis come here, they might find it strange how some Americans follow the [Jewish] religion,” says Laetitia. “I’ve been here for so long and I’ve seen so many different types of traditions. For me, I don’t really judge anybody by how they practice. It doesn’t matter if you are a Reform Jew, a Conservative Jew or an Orthodox Jew. For me, what’s important is how someone identifies – how proud they are. I get a lot of joy from seeing someone just identify – [someone] who comes to the golf course, watches me and says ‘Shalom, we are so proud of you’ or shows me their Star of David or says a word or two in Hebrew. It doesn’t really matter what they do as long as they have that pride in them. For me, that’s the most important thing.”

Golf lets Laetitia represent the country of Israel, the Jewish culture and her family’s heritage. She also hopes that her success on the greens can help her reach her goal of making a difference. “If I can reach a really high level, then I can reach more people,” she says. “It all depends on how well I do in golf – and that will give me a stronger voice. I still have to find that passion and what I want to do. I’m hoping to do something that will make the world a better place than before, [to] use the power that I will have to try to do something better.”

She is already used to making history – so making the world a better place is right on par for Laetitia Beck.



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