Leona Maguire returns to the fairways this week as the Ladies European Tour gets underway with its first event – the Australian Ladies Classic in Bonville.
12 months ago, the Cavan professional closed with a three-over par 75 on a birdie-less final day to claim a solid top-20 finish on three-over par after a week of unpredictable winds and tricky greens just south of Coffs Harbour.
Back then, Maguire was mainly plying her trade on the Symetra circuit as she chased her dream of LPGA Tour graduation. At season’s end, she’d managed just that and her debut on the Main Tour this month saw the former world amateur number one claim a top-5 finish at the ISPS Handa Vic Open.
She struggled to replicate those fireworks at the Australian Women’s Open but has cashed in on the opportunity to enjoy some extended warm weather competition by remaining in Australia to compete on the Ladies European Tour.
This week, however, could see the birth of a new European star as the LET’s youngest member for 2020, Pia Babnik from Slovenia, who only turned 16 in January, eyes some lofty goals ahead of her rookie season.
“My goal is to go to the Olympics in Tokyo,” she said, without hesitation.
The Geoff King Motors Australian Ladies Classic Bonville marks the first step in that six-month journey.
She’s making her debut as a professional at Bonville Golf Resort in Coffs Harbour, one of the most beautiful stops on the LET circuit.
“I feel amazing to be here in my first tournament as a professional and I can’t wait to start playing.”
Last month, she finished 11th at LET Q-School and completed her amateur career with a handicap of +7, but she was a prodigy well before that.
She started to play golf aged three and her father, Aleš, quickly realised that she had a talent for the game. She made her first birdie in her first junior golf competition aged four and started playing in junior golf competitions, winning all the national titles.
She regularly played in the European US Kids Championships and won six different age group titles and became World Amateur Golf Ranked at age 10.
She played in first professional tournament four years ago at age 12 on the LET Access Series and made the cut. She then played in her first dual ranking LET Access Series and LET tournament in the 2019 TIPSPORT Czech Ladies Open and finished T31st.
In 2019, she won the Helen Holm Scottish Open, the British Girls’ and the European Ladies’ Team Championship in stroke play. She qualified for the PING Junior Solheim Cup and represented Europe in the competition at Gleneagles and also played in the Junior Vagliano trophy.
But this is the start of a new journey. Does she feel any pressure? There is no sign of nerves.
“I will just try to play like I always do, just focused on my game and not looking at the others,” she says. “I will just try to play like usual and do my best.”
Pia landed in Australia for the first time a fortnight ago with her parents and 14-year-old twin brothers, who are also competitive golfers. She practised at Bonville, but due to 600mm of rainfall last week, they also ventured to play at inland Dubbo Golf Club, which will host the Women’s New South Wales Open next week.
With the whole family in Australia, dad, Aleš, will caddie, but Pia says that her brothers will probably stay back and play on their computers in the clubhouse, due to the hills.
During her 13 years of golf development, Pia has also found time for badminton, skiing, table tennis, swimming, yoga, drawing and painting, which are amongst her other interests, but there is no doubt that her focus is on the biggest event in golf: the women’s Olympic Golf Competition, which takes place at Kasumigaseki Country Club on August 5-8.
Beyond the top 15 world-ranked players, there can be a maximum of two players from each country. Fellow Slovenian Katja Pogacar, who is 400th on the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, currently occupies the 60th and final position on the Women’s Olympic Golf Rankings, while Babnik starts this season ranked 1131st in the world.
However, with nine LET tournaments to be played between now and the end of the women’s Olympic Golf Rankings qualification period on June 29, there is every chance for this talented and passionate young player to achieve her ultimate goal.
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