Letter From Europe

Leona Maguire isn't the LPGA's flashiest rookie in 2020, but she might just be the best

February 12, 2020
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leona-maguire-2019-kpmg-womens-pga.jpg

Leona Maguire plays in the 2019 KPMG Women's PGA Championship.

Photo by: David Cannon/Getty Images

David Cannon/Getty Images

There’s no other way to put it: LPGA Tour rookie Leona Maguire is an impressive young woman. Both off and on the golf course. She had a 3.943 GPA during her four years at Duke University, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2018 with a degree in psychology and a certificate in markets and management studies. Simultaneously, the Irish native was also the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world for a record 135 weeks before turning professional in June 2018.

Such longevity didn’t happen by accident. Maguire’s career in the unpaid ranks was littered with titles and awards. Perhaps the only notable omission from 25-year-old’s stellar résumé is the NCAA Championship, where she was twice runner-up during her time with the Blue Devils (she also was a two-time college player of the year). So let’s just stick with her representative honors. Junior Ryder Cup—check. Junior Solheim Cup—double check. Curtis Cup—triple check. Vagliano Trophy (Great Britain & Ireland versus Europe)—quadruple check. Women’s World Amateur Team Championship—double check. Ireland at the Olympics— check (one of just three amateurs to compete in 2016).

Given her academic background and on-course success in college, it will come as no surprise to hear that Maguire, who is 15 minutes younger than her spookily identical twin sister, Lisa, has, so far at least, planned out both her life and professional career with meticulous care.

“I learned consistency at Duke,” she says. “I’m a good planner, and Duke taught me how to manage my time between golf and my studies. Going there was the best decision I ever made, as was staying there. People had their opinions on whether or not I should have turned pro earlier than I did. But I have no regrets. I’m glad I stayed the four years.

“On the course, I learned how to put myself in contention, regardless of how I was playing,” she continues. “I usually found a way somehow. In weeks when I played well, I won. But when I didn’t, I was still able to get close. Off the course, I basically grew up a bit. Being that far away from home you have to do that. My mum says I hop on aeroplanes the way she hopped on buses at the age I am now, which is true. I’m not really fazed by going from place to place or country to country by myself.”

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leona-maguire-duke-2017-ladies-british-amateur.jpg

Leona Maguire looks on during Day 2 of the 2017 Ladies British Open Amateur Championship.

Photo by: Richard Martin-Roberts/R&A

Richard Martin-Roberts/R&A

Indeed, starting with her stellar junior career in Ireland, Maguire has moved up and on in the game that replaced competitive swimming in her sporting affections with a monotonous and relentless regularity. After college, she spent a successful year on the developmental Symetra Tour and now faces her first full season on the LPGA circuit.

“I suppose I have worked my way up the ladder, ticking every box on the way,” she says. “It has all been about making sure that I achieve at every level. That gives you confidence, which then carries over into the next stage. So yes, I’ve done it my way. Some people have agreed with that; some have not. But I’ve been fortunate to have a good team around me. I’ve relied on them and it has all worked out well.”

That continues to be the case. Last week in only her second LPGA event as a full-card holder, the ISPS Handa Vic Open in Australia, Maguire finished T-4, one shot out of the three-woman sudden-death playoff won by Hee Young Park. While such a boost to her confidence is obviously welcome so early in her career at the highest level, Maguire was quick to acknowledge she was never really in contention to win.

“I snuck in there at the last-minute really,” she says. “I wasn’t aware of what the scores were doing until we got to the 18th. I knew those up ahead were likely to fall back a bit. What I didn’t know was how many of them would do so. Besides, playing in such a strong wind required so much mental energy, focusing on more than what I was doing would have been really tough. So much of my thought processes was going into my own play.”

In the wake of that early success, Maguire hasn’t come up with any specific targets for 2020. Which is mildly surprising. But only until it becomes clear she didn’t have any beforehand. It’s hard to re-focus when you have yet to focus.

“I haven’t really given myself any definitive targets for this year at this stage,” she says. “I haven’t thought about keeping my card or finishing anywhere in particular on the money list. I’ve never been one to watch rankings. Besides, a few good weeks can soon enough change everything. I just want to take one event at a time and see where that takes me.”

Ah, but there is one exception to that not-so firm rule. Four years ago, Maguire finished T-21 at the Olympics in Rio. And she would very much like to do better in Tokyo this August. As things stand, she is likely to make the two-woman Irish side. Currently ranked 197th in the world, the County Cavan native would join 220th-ranked Stephanie Meadow on the plane to Japan.

Rio 2016 Olympic Games - Day 15 - Golf

Rio 2016 Olympic Games - Day 15 - Golf

Rio , Brazil - 20 August 2016; Leona Maguire, right, of Ireland with her sister and caddy Lisa on the 5th tee box during the final round of the women's golf at the Olympic Golf Course, Barra de Tijuca, during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Photo by: Stephen McCarthy

Stephen McCarthy

“I loved playing in the Olympics last time,” Maguire says with a smile. “It’s the biggest sporting event in the world. And one of the coolest events I’ve ever been a part of. When I was a swimmer it was my ambition to be at one. It is such an honor to represent your country at any time, but to do it in an Olympics is another level again. The Ireland team was quite small so there was a great camaraderie. I had a lot of dinners with the other athletes and we were all cheering each other on. I definitely want to do it again.”

One thing has changed for Maguire this year. For the first time, she is seeing a lot less of her twin. In contrast to her sister, Lisa saw her golf game go backwards at Duke and she is now working for the Modest! Golf management company that, not coincidentally, handles Leona’s affairs.

“Life by myself is a little different after being half of a pair for so long,” Leona says. “But Lisa will be at a few events. And we talk pretty much every day. We’re still close and that will never change. I do miss her, but we are both enjoying what we are doing. I don’t think she has any regrets. She is still involved in golf.

“In school we did play some tricks on the teachers,” she continues. “We had to wear uniforms, so we looked the same head-to-toe. We actually had two sets of twins at school, but we were by far the most similar. We did like to switch seats. So the teacher would ask Lisa a question thinking she was me, then I would answer from the other side of the room. When I’m at a tournament on my own, people greet me with ‘Hi Leona.’ But when they know Lisa is around too, it’s always just ‘Hi.’ No one wants to guess and get it wrong.”

Speaking of Modest! Golf, Maguire shares the popular view that the founder of the company, pop singer Niall Horan, is potentially one of the most important people in golf today. Such is the breadth of his appeal, especially amongst young girls, Horan’s ability to “grow the game” is almost peerless.

“Niall is one of the biggest golf fans I’ve ever met,” Maguire says. “He has millions of girls following him on social media. So if he says, ‘play golf,’ chances are at least some of them are going to give it a go. I saw that at a Modest! event. I played with Niall, and it was obvious there were a lot of girls out there who had never been on a course before. But I bet some of them had lessons after seeing the game up close. He can only help in getting rid of the stuffy image golf can sometimes have.”

So true. And all part of the plan, of course.


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