Tournament organisers breathed a huge sigh of relief when home star, Leona Maguire confirmed her participation in this year’s KPMG Women’s Irish Open.
Absent from the Ladies European Tour schedule for a decade, Maguire will be the headline act when the stars of European women’s golf descend on Dromoland Castle from September 22-25.
For a moment Maguire feared that she mightn’t make it at all. Understandably focussed on her LPGA Tour exploits, it was a successful summer that sealed Maguire’s place in the field and although it means a frantic five-week spell of trans-Atlantic travel, Maguire can’t wait to be part of the tournament’s long-awaited return to Irish shores.
“It’s a big deal to have a Women’s Irish Open back after ten years of being away,” Maguire said.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to play. I knew I was going to play at Galgorm this year for the World Invitational, plus JP’s event and the Irish Open Pro-am at Mount Juliet.
“But this one is a bonus. Thankfully I’ve played well enough during the LPGA season that I can miss Arkansas, even though it’s one of our biggest events on the schedule.
“It’s a hectic run of events, I’ve five-in-a-row coming up but it’s nice to be able to come back and play in front of home fans one more time this year.”
A Women’s Irish Open without Maguire didn’t bear thinking about. The two-time Olympian has been in sparkling form this year, climbing to a career-high 16th on the Rolex Women’s rankings having broken through for a maiden LPGA victory at the Drive On Championship back in February.
Now a global star, not least off the back of her record-breaking efforts as a rookie last year as part of Europe’s winning Solheim Cup side, Maguire’s willingness to skip Arkansas, a $2.3 million event, in favour of the €400,000 prize fund on offer in Co. Clare is testament to her commitment to Irish golf, and a reflection of just how well she’s played on the LPGA this season.
“Thankfully the summer’s gone well,” Maguire said, already assured of her place in November’s Tour Championship.
“When the dates were announced last September, it wasn’t what I was hoping for, it was always going to be a last minute decision depending on how the season went.
“But the U.S. Open (T8) and The Open (T4) went well and I’ve got myself in a nice place in the CME heading into the last run of events (13th at the time of writing).
“I’ll be pretty jet-lagged. There’ll be lots of travel, but hopefully come tee-time Thursday at Dromoland, we’ll be ready to go.”
Given her growing influence in world golf, the Cavan star hopes to avoid any scheduling headaches in future by getting involved in the process of picking a new date for the tournament, something Maguire believes will be to everyone’s benefit.
“I had no input in this year’s dates but we have been working behind the scenes with the tour, the promoters and the venue to try to get a better date for next year,” Maguire revealed.
“I think it’s in everyone’s best interests. It might be nicer to have it in the summer when school kids are off so they can come watch. The top amateurs haven’t gone back to college at that point and that’s a big thing too.
“Myself and Lisa (sister) had the opportunity to play as amateurs from 2009-2012 when it was in Portmarnock and Killeen. It gives top amateurs a chance to get a taste for what it’s like to play against some of the best players in Europe and the world and I think that’s very important.
“I’ve been saying it for the last few years that we really needed this tournament back. It’s vital for the growth of the game in Ireland. For all the young girls to actually see an event in real life. It’s different to watching it on TV.
“To see someone hitting a drive or holing a putt, to get a little smile from a golfer walking off the green or a golf ball or whatever, it stays with you. It was a big part of my journey when I was younger.”
Maguire shared almost every step of that journey with her sister, Lisa. The prodigious golfing twins from Cavan weren’t long making headlines. In 2005, at the Tiger Woods endorsed Young Masters Golf Junior Series at La Manga, the pair made an early splash; Lisa capturing the title while Leona finished second. They were just ten at the time.
Their play opened doors to bigger and better events as they developed but as Leona points out, it was gaining early exposure to how the pros went about their business at the Ladies Irish Open that proved to be invaluable learning experiences for their fledgling careers.
“I remember I played with Laura Davies in 2009 at Portmarnock,” Maguire recalled.
“She was hitting this two-iron way past my driver everywhere so I was definitely a bit intimidated. Then getting to play a practice round with Suzann Pettersen in 2011 at Killeen Castle was big as well.
“She played nine holes with us and she was very gracious with her time and went on to win the event by quite a few. It was a big part of the journey. I had a hole-in-one that year too and I’ll never forget it.
“Just even watching and observing what the pros are doing, be it in the practice rounds or on the putting green or the range. I think standard-wise when you’re an amateur it’s not that big of a jump but the pros are that bit craftier. You see how they make cuts, how they move up a leaderboard, how they plot things out. It’s sometimes a little bit different.
“It was a big part of the journey. You get that taste and you go away thinking, ‘next year I’m going to do this that bit better’. It gives you an extra pep in your step and added incentive to work hard in the winter after playing a lot in the summer.
“I loved my experiences playing in Irish Opens.”
In ten years’ time, who’s to say a new kid on the block won’t be regaling journalists about their first taste of professional golf alongside a certain Leona Maguire at Dromoland. Today, Maguire finds herself in a position to give back and if inspiring a new generation of talent is a bi-product of her own performances, then the 27-year old is only happy to help.
“I love coming home,” Maguire said. “My heart will always be in Ireland no matter where in the world we’re travelling.
“And it’s always nice to have your own National Open to play in. You see the crowds out following Brooke Henderson in Canada and how passionate they are about Canadian golf.
“I’d like to do something similar for Irish golf and to leave the game better than I found it. You want to inspire the younger generation and I think giving back is a big part of that.”
Anyone in attendance at the K Club over the summer would testify to Maguire’s willingness to promote the game to a younger audience. The KPMG Ambassador put on a clinic for 32 children in the local Straffan area and she was impressed with her enthusiastic students on the day.
“They were very enthusiastic, asking lots of questions and eager to hit shots. And it wasn’t just the parents nudging them to get involved,” Maguire laughed.
“That’s always exciting seeing them developing a passion for the game. Golf’s given me so much. The memories, the friendships and the places I’ve got to go because of golf, never in a million years would I have experienced that without golf.
“There was never an Irish person on the LPGA growing up so it’s nice that I can put a face to that for them, and obviously Stephanie [Meadow] as well and Olivia [Mehaffey] coming up through the ranks too.
“You don’t dwell on it too much when you’re playing but when you have letters arriving to the house addressed to ‘Leona Maguire, the golfer, Cavan’ it hits you.
“I’ve never been one to love the limelight or want to be the centre of attention. I don’t actively enjoy it but if it means helping a few younger kids to develop some confidence and belief in themselves, that can only be a good thing.”
The game of golf takes Maguire to a new hunting ground this year too – Dromoland Castle – a host venue that Maguire made an early recon mission to alongside her caddie Dermot Byrne as she looks to stay ahead of the game and contend come September.
“I think it’s going to be a fantastic venue,” Maguire said. “Obviously it’s a lovely hotel overlooking the golf course. They’ve put a lot of work into the golf course, you can see that they’ve invested heavily. The greens are in really good shape which lots of the girls are going to be happy about and there’s some really nice holes around the water.
“There’s going to be some risk/reward with the golf course. Some chance holes. Others where you’ll need to strategize a little bit on but there’s a good blend there. If we can get some decent weather come tournament week, we’ll all be laughing.”
Maguire’s male counterparts, the likes of Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry have often spoke about the extra responsibility on a home player’s shoulders come tournament week and how that can sometimes weigh heavily on their head. Maguire has long insisted that people can expect whatever they like of her but she also accepts that being the headline act will have its own unique challenges. Maguire just hopes she’ll be ready to rise to meet them come game day.
“I guess we’ll find out,” Maguire laughed. “Part of the reason myself and Dermot got to Dromoland for a little bit of an early look was to hopefully ease the time commitments that we have during the tournament week itself.
“I’ll be flying in last minute, will get a bit of a look in the Pro-am Wednesday and then we’ll be ready to go. It’s one of those things where I won’t be ideally prepped the way I’d like to be for a pro event.
“I’m going to have to be very, very patient, take my chances when I get them and try not to put too much pressure on myself to do well.
“I’ll make the most of it and give it my very best shot for the week.”
As it happened, a missed cut in Portland meant Maguire arrived on Sunday and if she can deliver a big week for the home faithful, there’s no doubt Dromoland will be thronged with golf fans hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the island’s best ever exponents of the ancient club and ball game.
Ten years is too long between Women’s Irish Opens but with Maguire leading from the front, and the support of the Irish public behind the event, this year’s star attraction is hoping the tournament is here to stay and that the reputation of the event will only go from strength to strength in future.
“That’s a big reason as to why I was determined to play this year – I want to help make this event as big as possible,” Maguire said.
“It’s still only coming back after ten years. KPMG are obviously involved. Dromoland have put a lot of investment into the event and everyone wants to see it do as well as possible but for that to happen, everyone needs to buy in and play their part.
“Hopefully people can come out and support. Buy tickets, watch it on TV, and hopefully we can keep building year on year.
“The dream scenario would be to have it co-sanctioned with the LPGA, a bit like the Scottish event or the World Invitational. You want the best of the best showing up for a Women’s Irish Open.
“The more people who come out to support, the more players that are there, the bigger the purse gets. It all works in a circular motion but hopefully we can get as big an event as possible.
“There’s huge potential and I have no doubt that Irish people will come out and support it. When I played in those previous Ladies Irish Opens, before any 20×20 movement, the crowds were massive so hopefully we can have just as good, if not better, this year and in the years to come.”
Tickets to see the stars of the Ladies European Tour at the KPMG Women’s Irish Open are now on sale at www.womensirishopen.ie. Four-day tickets are priced at €35 while single-day tickets will cost €15. Under 16s attending the event will also be admitted free of charge.
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