Nov. 5, 2001
As the Air Force golf team prepares for its final tournament of the fall season, team captain C1C Ben Leestma will have some added pressure. He will be looking to extend his winning streak to four consecutive tournaments.
Leestma is making a name for himself as one of the nation's premier amateur golfers. In early October, he carded 207 (70-66-71) to win the Falcon Antigua Invitational. His score was the lowest in Air Force history in a 54-hole tournament. He followed that victory up by winning the Service Academies Classic for an unprecedented fourth consecutive season. Already having a great month, Leestma grabbed the individual title at the Louisiana Tech Invitational, winning by six strokes.
Now the team captain and his teammates will head to Palm Desert, Calif., to participate in The Prestige (Nov. 5-6). As the name of the tournament indicates, many prestigious universities will be competing, challenging Leestma to win an unheard of fourth straight title.
"It is a good opportunity to measure myself against the elite players in the country," Leestma said. "My scores have been very competitive, so I know I can do well at The Prestige."
Leestma's golden season is extra special for head golf coach Gene Miranda, who is retiring at the end of the season after 24 years as the Academy's golf coach.
"Leestma is rewriting our record books and could become the best golfer we have ever had at the Academy," Miranda said. "But he is not just a great player. He is also like an assistant coach in a lot of ways. He knows what needs to be done, and sets the example and makes sure his teammates are doing what they should be instead of wasting time."
Leestma has blossomed into one of the top golfers in the country. He is ranked fourth in the Mountain West, one of the top golf conferences in the country, and has developed into an All-American candidate, both athletically and academically with his 3.24 GPA. But he wasn't always a standout golfer. In high school, he never won a tournament and wasn't recruited by any other college - at any level.
"Leestma was a four-handicap, and we never recruit four-handicaps," Miranda said. "But he had good grades and some raw talent, so I decided to give him a chance. What made him improve so quickly is he's coachable. He listens and works on what you ask him to work on."
And Miranda is grateful he gave the little-known six-foot-four golfer from Houston, Texas, the opportunity to develop. Leestma made the varsity team as a freshman after just two tournaments and is now the Academy's all-time winningest golfer.
"My collegiate success didn't come automatically," Leestma said. "I spent summers playing massive amounts of golf. I was exposed to the golf course everyday. And this year, I played in U.S. Amateur qualifier at Murphy's Creek Golf Course in Denver, which helped to put first tournament jitters behind me."
Experience has certainly benefited Leestma's golf game. He has been in several pressure situations, and knows that he can go out and hit the shots and perform under pressure and win tournaments. But his talent is what carries him. He has shot two rounds of 66 this year, Air Force records for low round.
"He is very long off the tee, which gives him a large advantage," Miranda said. "He is so steady, making a lot of birdies because he is so long off the tee. He has improved dramatically on his wedge shots and getting the ball closer to the hole. He putts with tremendous confidence. He is a polished player."
It isn't just the coach or the Academy that is taking notice of Leestma's accomplishments. The national media is also. PGATour.com recently wrote an article on the senior, and the national publication GolfWorld is requesting interviews.
All eyes will be on Ben Leestma at The Prestige, as he tries to stretch his string of victories to four. While the task is daunting and all odds are against such a feat, Leestma doesn't doubt that he can achieve it.
"I go into every tournament thinking I can win," Leestma said. "Why should this tournament be any different?"