After Leona Maguire signed for a superb moving day 65 to move to within four of the lead on -9 as the leading groups made the turn for home, it was expected that the gap may increase to at least six, if not seven.
However, an outside chance of winning has turned into a realistic opportunity to become the first Irish winner of the KPMG Women’s Irish Open as the temperature cooled, the wind got up and nerves kicked in among the afternoon leaders who stagnated over the scorable closing period.
Remarkably she has reduced a ten-shot halfway deficit to just two and moved from 42nd to 8th place. 2019 Solheim Cup star Anne Van Dam is in the driving seat on eleven-under, but only just after she endured a shaky finish of her own as she carded a 70.
A final day jolt at the title looked very unlikely when she stood on the 12th tee one-under for the day. Nothing exciting was happening in terms of her chances of moving into the mix but the stragglers began to flock, and a three-deep gallery roared her on after she chipped in from 30-feet for birdie on 12.
Birdies on 14 and 15 maintained her momentum following a missed chance on 13. But it was the par-5 16th where she announced herself as a potential contender. Her aggressive approach paid off with a bombing drive and a darting 3-wood to a tight back right pin before she holed from ten-feet for an eagle with a telling fistpump that raised hopeful possibilities that she wasn’t out of this just yet.
A somewhat fortunate birdie on 18 after a duffed three-wood and a third that teetered on the edge of disaster put her into the fringes of contention. The 27-year-old knew the importance of holing from 17-feet as did the crowd with a real Irish Open roar echoing around the golf course and would have been heard by the leading groups teeing off from the adjacent tenth tee.
Maguire had 20-under as her pre-tournament target and many believed she would need successive rounds of 65 to just force the issue, nevermind win.
“Didn’t get off to the best of starts today again but made a nice par save on 8 and a birdie on 9 gave me some good momentum heading into the back nine. That chip in on 12 was the first bit of luck I got all week and changed everything. Made some nice birdies coming in and that eagle on 16 was a bonus,” explained Maguire who is the highest ranked player at 18 with Linn Grant next at 44.
“Dermot said to me on the 13th tee that we were going to be brave and start going at pins we had nothing to lose. Sometimes it comes off sometimes it doesn’t, today it did at least I have made up some ground.
“I had 20-under in my head at the start of the week and I’ll try get as close to that as possible. Yesterday knocked me back a bit but there are a lot of chances out there and you can go on a run, just have to be patient and take chances when you get them,” she added before the late drama unfolded.
Just as it looked as if the leaders might pull away to thirteen or even fourteen-under-par Van Dam, Smilla Soenderby and halfway leader Moa Folke all threw in clumsy three-putts on either the 16th and 17th holes while Soenderby duffed and thinned two chips from the back of 17 which resulted in a potentially fatal triple bogey as she fell back into the pack on nine-under.
A penny for Maguire’s thoughts…
Dutch maestro Van Dam is the longest hitter on both the LPGA and LET tours but even she was unable to make her length count as she three-putted from the bank on 18 to remain on –11. Two three putts in her last two holes.
Folke was in a great position to retain her lead heading into the final day but she went through the 18th green. Her attempt to run a wood up the front bank way too hot after Soenderby also went through the green with a pitch.
Folke dropped a shot to fall out of the lead on –10.
Excitement and anticipation will be rife on Sunday afternoon with Dromoland Castle sure to be heaving with fans and then some with a few more poised to make the effort now that Maguire has battled into contention to become Ireland’s maiden LET winner – just months after she achieved such a feat on the LPGA.
Maureen Madill previously finished runner-up on two occasions while Maguire also came second to Beth Allen in 2016 as an amateur.
Winning experience ahead of Maguire is scarce with just eight wins among the seven players ahead of her with Van Dam winning five times on the LET while Annabel Dimmock and Nicole Broch Estrup have just one.
62 shooter Folke, her compatriot Jessica Karlsson of Sweden, Spaniard Carmen Alonso and Finnish veteran Ursula Wikstrom (all –10) are all hoping tomorrow can be the day they finally break through on the LET Tour.
There is also the added incentive of lucrative rewards as far as LET prize funds go for these players with Race to Costa Del Sol points to be played for. Maguire has no such worries, only winning is on her mind before she returns to her LPGA Tour commitments.
It was a thrilling last couple of hours. At least a 2,000 strong following gathered to watch Maguire’s back nine and those who stayed will have enjoyed the thrills and spills that unfolded. At one stage there were five tied for the lead on eleven-under before Van Dam and Folke broke from the pack.
Should Maguire and co fail to ignite, there could be a cavalry charge with 15 players separated by just three shots.
The Ballyconnell woman has wrestled her way into the third last group at 11.20 with Moa Folke and Sarah Schober of Austria.