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Eyes already fixed on Rio, Israel's lone women's golf pro Beck in contention at Kingsmill

JAMES CITY — With golf set to return to the Olympics for the first time since 1904 this summer in Rio de Janeiro, competition within nations boasting multiple top contenders vying to represent their respective countries could heat up as the July selection deadline nears.

There is no race to Rio, though, for Laetitia Beck, the first and only Israeli female professional golfer.

Her bags virtually are packed for Brazil. She just has to iron out some of the details on one important piece of luggage.

The hot topic this week at the Kingsmill Championship (even throughout Thursday’s round) between caddie Matt Gelczis and the 24-year-old former Duke All-American, in her second year on the LPGA Tour, was the design of her Olympics golf bag.

“She is trying to get these pictures and the Hebrew lettering right, the English lettering right, where her name is going, the color scheme,” Gelczis said. “You have to have some kind of distraction out there so you’re not driving yourself crazy. That’s what golf does to you: It drives you crazy.”

The distraction seemed to work Thursday as Beck shot a 4-under-par 67, putting her firmly in contention entering Friday’s second round.

She carded bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes, but saved par on 18 after sailing her drive wide right of the fairway, outside of the rough and ropes and near the pedestrian path. 

Last year, Beck missed the cut at Kingsmill, shooting rounds of 78 and 72.

Wednesday she struggled on the range, and said she didn’t feel particularly confident Thursday morning before going on to briefly hold the lead.

An eagle on No. 7 helped set the tone, and she followed with another eagle on 15 and finished with birdies on 5, 9 and 12.

“Just being able to be in this position and the pressure — it’s the only way for me to learn,” Beck said, “so I’m glad that I get the opportunity more than once to have the lead.”

Last week at the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic in Alabama, Beck led part of the way and tied for 15th, her best finish on the LPGA Tour.

Beck made eight of 14 cuts a season ago and has made three of nine this year.

Thursday was her first official round with Gelczis, who lives in Pittsburgh and has caddied for a different pro each of his last five times out this season.

“She is starting to, I think, get a little confidence and realize that she’s got the game to be on this tour, and that’s a big hurdle for a lot of these players. They come out and they’re still trying to figure it out. They come out and they see these girls making millions of dollars and they’re struggling to make 30, 40 grand, and it’s a big mental hurdle for them to get over,” Gelczis said.

Beck entered Kingsmill 42nd in the International Golf Federation Olympics rankings. 

Qualification for the field of 60 in Rio will be determined by world ranking. The top 15 players will qualify, but there will be a limit of four golfers per country eligible to make it in that way. Outside of the top 15, countries can have no more than two representatives.

Beck, who was born in Belgium, twice has represented Israel in national competition in the Maccabiah Games, in which she won individual gold medals in 2009 and 2013.

Beck moved to Israel at age 6 and honed her golf craft in Caesarea, home to only one 18-hole golf course, with another nine-hole course in a nearby town.

She played other sports like soccer and tennis, but devoted herself to golf after winning the Israeli Ladies Championship at 12.

Later came the IMG Academy in Florida and four years at Duke, culminating in a 2014 national team title and a degree in psychology.

All of Beck’s family still lives in Israel.

She dons a gold Star of David necklace during play to “show everyone where I come from,” and plans on participating in the Maracanã Stadium opening ceremony in Rio, joining a sparse delegation of her countrymen and women. Israel has claimed only one gold medal in its history, for sailing in 2004.

“Just seeing the Israeli flag there and all the other countries is going to be really special,” Beck said. “It’s just a bigger stage than what I sometimes feel here.”

Beck said bearing her country’s blue and white colors is a “dream come true.”

“I think that’s the one main reason why I do what I do,” she said. “It really pushes me, I think.”

Holtzman can be reached be phone at 757-298-5830.

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