By Ron Sirak
SOUTHPORT, England -- Caesarea is a tiny town of about 4,500 people on the Israeli coast midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa whose roots extend to Herod the Great in about 25 B.C. It also has the country's only 18-hole golf course.
This is where Laetitia Beck grew up, moving from Belgium with her parents when she was 6. At 9, she got into golf -- both her parents play -- and at 14 she moved to Florida to study at the IMG Academy.
At 7:58 local time Thursday morning she will do something no Israeli woman has ever done: tee off in a golf tournament as a professional.
A member of this year's Duke NCAA national championship team, Beck played the Monday qualifier for the Ricoh Women' British Open as an amateur, shot four-under 70 at Southport & Ainsdale GC to finish T-5 for one of the 15 spots in the field and turned pro on the spot.
"It means a lot to me," Beck said Wednesday at Royal Birkdale of making history. "It's not like I have a role model. It's the first time for me and my country."
Israel has a total of 27 holes, and Beck estimates there are maybe 1,000 golfers in the country. Even as a five-time winner of the Ladies Championship in the Israeli Open, she says she is barely known at home.
Beck is a quiet, thoughtful 22-year-old, almost to the point of being shy. "I never used to talk at all," she says. "So I'm getting better." She's also extremely proud of her country, the side of her hat bearing the Israeli flag.
To make it in the world of golf, Beck had to leave Israel, and that was not an easy adjustment. "At first it was exhausting," she said about entering the IMG Academy. "At the end of the first year I wanted to go home."
She stuck it out and earned a scholarship to Duke, where she majored in psychology, was the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year and a four-time member of the All-ACC team. "It was hard just balancing school and golf, but it made me stronger, tougher," Beck says. "I agree with what Stacy Lewis said about the importance of college. The experience is so different. I think everyone should go."
Beck says she will attend qualifying school for both the LPGA and the Ladies European Tour later this year. But first, she will go home after the Women's British Open to discuss her mandatory military service.
"We all have to serve four years, and I want to serve, but I also think I can do more for my country by playing golf," she says. Her service was already delayed so that she could attend Duke and could be delayed until her career is over.
Beck is an observant Jew who follows Kosher dietary laws. She missed one college tournament on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar. "My Judaism is very important to me, and I keep all the other holidays," she said at the time. "On Yom Kippur, no matter what, I have to fast."
Although she has spent most of the last eight years in the United States and now will travel the world pursuing a career as a professional golfer, her homeland is always in her heart and on her mind
"We watch every day and see all of the problems," she says about headlines of the latest violence in Israel. While she is powerless to change those headlines, she is proud to be a pioneer for her country.
And that, she hopes, will make a difference in some small way.
Photo: Duke University