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Friday, May 7, 2021

Irish women’s golf has so much to celebrate

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Sunday at the LPGA’s Drive On Championship was another fine example of just how far women’s professional golf has come in Ireland in recent times. It wasn’t long ago that our island went unrepresented on the LPGA Tour and now we boast two live contenders each week at the very pinnacle of the women’s game.

Leona Maguire led the way on Sunday in Florida, nailing birdies at her closing two holes to capture her second top-10 on the LPGA Tour and her best result on American soil. The Cavan professional has taken her time transitioning to the demands of the professional game but it should be no surprise to see the fruits of her labour now.

Atop the women’s amateur rankings for a record 135 weeks, it was only a matter of time before the 26-year old established herself amongst the stars of the LPGA Tour. An Olympian in Rio in 2016 and twice a winner on the Symetra Tour, Maguire is on an upward trajectory coinciding with a Solheim Cup and Olympic year. Her appearance at either will provide further inspiration to the next generation of women golfers across Ireland, something Leona played without as she came through the amateur ranks:

“We’ve always had great sports people in Ireland,” Maguire says. “There’s always been people that have been trail blazers. Turning back the clock, there was no Irish female professional golfer. Sometimes you have to make those opportunities for yourself. If a door closes, find a window. Find a way.”

Stephanie Meadow was another who had to plot her on course en route to the Promised Land of the LPGA Tour. The Jordanstown professional announced herself on the scene in incredible fashion when capturing a share of third on her pro debut at the US Open in 2014 but has had a constant battle on her hands since then to retain her status on the top tier of women’s golf.

Last year was arguably the 29-year old’s most consistent on the paid circuit. She enjoyed a podium finish at the Pelican Women’s Championship before joining Maguire at the end of season Tour Championship. Meadow finished 42nd on the Race to CME Globe and after making her first cut of the season in a top-40 finish at the Drive On Championship on Sunday, she’s up and running again with Solheim Cup and Olympic aspirations of her own for 2021.

Given the success of these two torchbearers in recent times, it’s no great surprise to see a whole host of potential stars lining up in the amateur ranks to join Meadow and Maguire on Tour. Arizona State star Olivia Mehaffey looks most likely to be next; the world amateur number 20 has been an ever-present inside the top-20 on the standings through five years at ASU and made her first Major cut competing as an amateur at last year’s ANA.

Mehaffey may have seen her professional ambitions delayed due to Covid-19 but the four-time All-American is set to be one of the stars of the second Augusta National Women’s Amateur this month (March 31-April 3) where she debuted amongst the pines two years ago. She’ll be joined by Auburn’s Julie McCarthy [Forrest Little] on debut in Georgia with Ireland boasting two representatives at the 85-player event set to showcase women’s golf to the world the week before The Masters.

It’s a tournament you’d expect to see Castlewarden’s Lauren Walsh competing at in the coming years given the meteoric rise of the Wake Forest sophomore. Up to 24th on the amateur charts, Walsh is twice a winner on the US collegiate circuit already and is part of the provisional GB&I squad for the Vagliano Trophy and Curtis Cup matches. In fact, five Irish are named in the initial selection with Mehaffey and McCarthy joined by Lisburn’s Paula Grant, who juggles full-time employment with competing amongst some of the world’s best full-time amateurs, while Lurgan’s Annabel Wilson completes the Irish line-up having already impressed in the early stages of her UCLA career.

Given the bar set by Maguire and Meadow on the LPGA Tour, it’s no wonder there’s such an abundance of talent waiting in the wings to bolster Ireland’s numbers on Tour. This is a golden generation for women’s golf in Ireland. With each passing week, the once gaping imbalance between Ireland’s male and female golfers becomes all the more bridgeable. The only downside to this celebration of Irish talent is that there’s no Irish Ladies Open to look forward to this summer off the back of such success.

The return of the innovative ISPS HANDA World Invitational will likely grant invites to many of the players mentioned above –Meadow is already a winner at Galgorm while Walsh tied 8th on her first taste of pro action in 2019 – however, Meadow won’t be back to defend her title, nor will Maguire be present given their Olympic commitments this coming July.

“The only pity is we don’t have an Irish Open on that schedule,” Leona agreed of a bumper year for women’s golf. “There’s a lot of countries there that have gotten an event back after a long time or are having their first one. I’d love to see the Irish Open back at some point.”

Given the fierce upward trajectory of Irish women’s golf in recent years, a Ladies Irish Open has to happen, while whoever makes the wise decision to sponsor it will have the support of a golf obsessed island only too willing to come out in their droves in the name of Irish golf.

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