If the world didn’t come to a halt in March 2020, Maude-Aimee Leblanc’s career path could have gone in a very different direction.
“The pandemic,” the 32-year-old Canadian golfer said this week, “turned out to be a really good thing for me.”
Indeed, Leblanc is one of the lucky ones who can say the COVID-19 crisis pushed her to a more gratifying spot – ultimately a return to the LPGA Tour in 2022.
After a disappointing 2019 season on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s feeder circuit, the native of Sherbrooke, Que., announced her retirement from professional golf.
A resident of Vero Beach, Fla. (she has lived in Florida for the past 10 years), Leblanc turned her focus to getting her golf teaching certification, with thoughts of going back to school for a physical therapist assistant program. But costs were prohibitive for the latter option because of her visa status, causing Leblanc to rethink her plan.
“I hadn’t touched my clubs for months and then golf started on TV in June or July. I started watching and I slowly started missing it and decided to give it another shot,” she said.
Because the Symetra Tour season was delayed, she didn’t lose any status upon her return in September 2020.
Leblanc played five events last year with a top finish of a tie for 11th before things really changed this year. She had two ties for second in her first four tournaments and followed that up with a runner-up finish and two more top-five results before the end of July. This pushed her into the top 10 on the Symetra money list, securing LPGA status for 2022.
“Ultimately (a return to the LPGA) was the goal, but it’s not something that I was thinking about a lot,” she said. “I didn’t have any expectations or anything.”
One of Canada’s top amateurs and a member of Purdue University’s 2010 NCAA championship team before turning pro in 2012, Leblanc has bounced between the LPGA and Symetra tours.
There’s not just one reason why 2021 was such a turnaround – Leblanc ended up sixth on the money list with $94,188 in earnings.
She credits coach Sal Spallone, who started working with Leblanc in 2020, for helping improve her putting with some shoulder and hand adjustments. The Canadian was ninth in putting average this year after being 61st in the category in 2019. Combine that with length off the tee – the six-foot-one Leblanc was fifth in average driving distance at 285.19 yards – and you have a recipe for success.
“I told her from Day 1, we get her back on the LPGA Tour, we get her with the right mindset and get a good team for her, she can be a staple out there,” Spallone said. “There’s no reason she can’t do some damage the next five, six, seven years. She’s in great shape and she has the power to hang with any of the young guns out there.”
Equally important, Leblanc says, is her work-life balance. Leblanc says her wife of four years, Stephanie, suggested another crack at pro golf – even though they’re quite busy at home with a dog and two cats.
“She knows I still have potential and goals that I want to accomplish in my professional career and she encouraged me to go back,” Leblanc said.
It’s not the same grind as it was in earlier years, though.
“I think I took a lot for granted when I was younger,” she said. “I definitely don’t practise as much as I used to and I think that’s also something that’s been helping me a lot … I’ve cut my practice time by more than half.”
Spallone thinks the strategy works for Leblanc.
“You’ve got to make sure the time you spend is efficient,” he said. “She’s kind of got that nice combination of carefreeness and focus when she practices. She exudes confidence – you can see it. She thinks she’s going to do well.”
Leblanc plans to stay the course for her return to the LPGA, where her best year was 2016 when she was 81st on the money list. Leblanc said she doesn’t want to be away from home for more than two or three weeks at a time. She hopes to play well early in the year so she can have greater clarity on her schedule with improved status.
How long she stays on tour remains to be seen. The LPGA purses are far smaller than the PGA’s and without significant sponsorship, it can be challenging to make ends meet.
“I’m going year by year,” Leblanc said.
But if results stay strong, it will make things that much easier.
“It’s definitely more enjoyable when you have (success),” she said. “When you have a good day at work, you come home happier.”
TEE TO GREEN
• Top Canadian LPGAer Brooke Henderson did not make the trip to Busan, South Korea for this week’s BMW Ladies Championship. The native of Smiths Falls, Ont., is planning to tee it up in the final two events of the season in Florida … Roger Sloan of Merritt, B.C., and Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont., are the two Canadians in the field for this week’s PGA Tour stop – the Zozo Championship in Chiba, Japan
• Five Canadians are in Stage II of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament this week in Florida. Selena Costabile of Thornhill, Ont., Naomi Ko of Victoria, Jaclyn Lee of Calgary, Maddie Szeryk of London, Ont., and Brigitte Thibault of Rosemere, Que., need to finish in the top 45 to advance to the final stage
• Mike Weir of Brights Grove, Ont., and Calgary’s Stephen Ames are in PGA Tour Champions action at the Dominion Energy Charity Classic, starting Friday in Richmond, Va.
•Aaron Cockerill of Stony Mountain, Man., gets another European Tour tee-time at the Mallorca Golf Open in Spain this week.