Beckel: From beatnik golfer to college coach, mother
Feb. 14, 2001
Joshua Cooley
Staff Writer

Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette

Leland Beckel, a Bethesda resident and top amateur golfer, was recently hired as women's golf coach at Georgetown University.

Being a Democratic political analyst who makes a living debating on TV, Bob Beckel has had his fair share of unpleasant confrontations. Sixteen years of political talk show experience, with its heated discussions, irate phone calls and protests, can numb a man to personal attacks. But even an all-out assault from the staunchest of Republicans couldn't have prepared Bob for Leland Ingham.

When Bob agreed to play golf with some buddies at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase on that summer day in 1990, he didn't realize he would meet his match -- both as a golfer and a soulmate.

Leland tells the story best: "I was asked to come play golf with these guys I normally played golf with on Fridays. I showed up and they had invited Bob to play, and I didn't know who Bob was. I showed up on the first tee of Columbia and put my ball down on the whites, which is the men's tee, and he said, 'The ladies' tee is up there.' I said, 'Oh, it's all right, I'll just hit from here. No big deal.' So I hit the ball probably 230 [yards] right down the middle. He gets up and tops it right down the hill. We played the round of golf and get to the 18th hole. I had clearly beaten him by many, many strokes [32 by Bob's recollection]. And I picked his ball up out of the hole and threw it at him and said, 'Next time, maybe you ought to play from the red tees.'"

What Bob didn't know at the first tee was that Leland was a very talented golfer on the Futures Tour. What Leland didn't know was that Bob was a well-known political analyst who was the campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale in the 1984 election. But, then again, Leland didn't much care. All she saw was a pompous chauvinist who needed to be put in his place.

"That's the kind of thing I like," said Bob, 51, who married Leland two years later and now has two children (Alex, 7, and MacKenzie, 5) with his golf superior. "She wasn't intimidated by the fact that I was on TV. ... My friend told her, 'This is Bob Beckel. He's got a show on Fox.' She was totally unimpressed. The fact that she had the gall to throw my ball at me and say that, I thought that was right down my alley."

Leland, 34, of Bethesda, has always had a knack for swinging a golf club; now she is tackling a new challenge: Coaching others to do the same. Last month, she was hired as the coach of the fledgling women's golf program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. But there was a time in Beckel's life when the thought of her teaching golf, let alone succeeding at it herself, was as silly to her as the brash arrogance of a political pundit.

For love of the game

Beckel was a promising tennis player until a broken wrist at age 14 hampered her abilities. In high school, she played basketball, field hockey and lacrosse at Holton-Arms in Bethesda. But when her grandmother introduced her to golf a year or so after the wrist injury, all other endeavors took a backseat. She quickly excelled in golf and, by 1983, she had won the Mid-Atlantic Golf Association junior girls tournament.

"I fell in love with it," Beckel said. "I basically never played tennis again. It was such a challenge. It was so frustrating, and it was just fascinating to me."

Beckel graduated from the University of Virginia in 1988, having kept her golf skills sharp during summer breaks, and moved on to law school at Dayton (Ohio) University. While on a spring-break trip to Hilton Head, S.C., Beckel met a local golf pro who introduced her to Henry Picard, a former PGA Tour star who won the 1938 Master's and '39 PGA Championship. They convened on a run-down golf range, where Picard plopped down a folding chair to watch the raw, young talent.

After a sufficient audition of her swing, Beckel turned to Picard and said, "What do you think?"

"I think you have potential," he replied.

Beckel went home with thoughts bouncing around her head like a lotto machine. Staying at law school meant assured success and financial comfort. Chasing after golf meant entering an intimidating world of uncertainty. Beckel chose golf.

She gave up law school, worked as a paralegal to fund her passion and, in the spring of 1990, turned pro on the Futures Tour (now SBC Futures Tour), which is a step below the LPGA. Her life instantly became like a Jack Kerouac novel: She and several tour friends took nomadic road trips every week to places like Decatur, Ill., Buffalo, N.Y., and Orlando, Fla.

Beckel stretched a rod across the backseat of her Toyota 4-Runner to hang her clothes, which were washed in coin laundromats in whatever town she was in at the time. Grateful Dead and jazz CDs helped pass away the long miles. Econo Lodges were the overnight accommodations of choice. Meals were at the most inexpensive joint along the way. The 4-Runner trekked roughly 5,000 miles that summer for a grand total of about $6,000 in tour winnings.

Leland met Bob that year, played on the Futures Tour again in 1991 and got married the next year. Within three months of their November 1992 wedding, she was pregnant with Alex and her professional golf career came to an abrupt end. It's been a decade now since Beckel quit, and she can't help wonder sometimes how far she could have gone on the pro circuit.

"It will always be something in my mind because I did try for the LPGA [in 19991] and missed in the first stage [of qualifying school] by three shots," she said. "I think, had I kept at it, maybe there was a chance."

An impressive résumé

Beckel's playing days are far from over. In fact, she's still an excellent golfer. After reapplying for amateur status in 1995, she reeled off an impressive list of performances: She was the 1996 and 1999 District of Columbia women's champion; she reached the round of 16 in the 1998 U.S. Women's Amateur championship; and she was runner-up in the 1999 U.S. Mid-Amateur championship. That last performance vaulted her to No. 3 in the Golfweek/Titleist national amateur ranking at the time (she is currently 25th).

In 2000, Beckel was a member of the victorious U.S. team in the Curtis Cup, which is the amateur women's equivalent to the LPGA's Solheim Cup and the PGA's Ryder Cup, in North Yorkshire, England. With her Curtis Cup status came an exemption to the 2000 U.S. Women's Open Championship (she finished third from last).

"She's a natural athlete obviously," Bob said. "You do not want to play her for money on the last two holes. There are people who fall apart on the last two holes like me, and then there are those who are focused and have ice in their veins. That's her."

Bob should know. He's the first to admit that he has made money on his wife's talent. Before they were married, Bob took her to renowned Pebble Beach in California for a birthday trip. On the last day there, the couple was paired with two guys who, in Bob's estimation, "came in at a combined 700 pounds and looked like they were right off a screen test of 'The Sopranos' -- silk shirts and gold everywhere."

Bob wagered $100 a hole on his wife's superiority and made $600 through seven holes. On the par-4 No. 8, Leland drove the ball into the wind to within 210 yards of the green. One of the corpulent pair bet double or nothing that Leland couldn't hit the green on the next shot. Bob took the bet and watched confidently as his wife used a 5-wood to lay up three feet from the hole.

"The guy dropped his bag and stormed off," Bob recalled. "We got rid of an [expletive] and won a lot of money."

The juggling act

Building a new program from scratch at Georgetown is going to be a consuming task for Beckel, especially while juggling a family and her own golf fetish. But then again, if it wasn't a challenge, she probably wouldn't be interested. Among her new coaching to-do list is: Learn the NCAA rulebook, fundraise, balance her athletes' golf time with Georgetown's rigorous academic standards, find a home course for the team, enter the right tournaments and start one of her own, recruit athletes to a infant program, and learn how to teach golf.

"I'm hoping we can create a program where you can get the best education you want and you can play on one of the best teams," Beckel said. "Duke [University] is a good example of that. That's the challenge and the goal, and that's going to take a little while."

Georgetown director of athletics Joseph Lang said he was impressed with Beckel's personal skills, her golfing prowess and her experience with DIVOT, Inc., a Bethesda-based golf event management company where she worked from 1993 until the Georgetown hiring. Beckel made Lang's coaching candidate list after a Georgetown alumnus who met her at the U.S. Open recommended her to Lang.

"From our perspective, for where we are -- starting a program and the level we're starting out at -- we felt it was a great match," Lang said.

What concerns Beckel most about her vocational shift is how well she'll be able to toggle between being a golfer and a golf instructor.

"I think sometimes I can get a little bit too driven and drive myself and everyone around me crazy," she said. "Or I can get a little too obsessive about my game. I can lose perspective a little bit. Hopefully, I'll have six 18- to 22-year-olds looking at me and saying, 'Coach Beckel, you're losing your mind. That's a little out to lunch.' I'm kind of looking forward to that, the interplay with the kids, to keep my motivation somewhat balanced."

For the kids' sake, let's hope they never make a wisecrack about starting from the white tees.