Cometh the hour, cometh Leona

Mark McGowan

Leona Maguire amidst champagne spray at Centurion (Photo: Tristan Jones/LET)

Mark McGowan

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Some people are just born with a competitive gene. Michael Jordan famously has it, Manny Pacquiao has it, Roy Keane has it, Paul O’Connell has it, and you’d better believe Leona Maguire has it.

It’s what’s made her one of the most feared Solheim Cup opponents in the event’s history, despite making just two appearances to date. Catriona Matthew clearly recognised it when she selected the rookie as one of the wildcard picks in 2021, and recognised it further still when she picked the rookie to play in all five matches – the only player of the 24 involved to be ever present.

History-making is something that the Cavan star is no stranger to, becoming the first Irish woman to rise to the top of the World Amateur Golf Rankings, setting a new record for most consecutive weeks at number one, becoming the first Irish woman to win on the LPGA Tour, the first to play in a Solheim Cup and now, the first to win on the Ladies European Tour.

2024 had been a bit of a slow burner, but not anymore. All of a sudden, a so-so year has become one to savour. And there’s still six months, two major championships, the Solheim Cup and of course, the KPMG Women’s Irish Open to come.

Was it vintage Maguire? No, not quite. Consistency has been a bit of an issue all season, and was so again after a blistering opening round was followed by mistake-laden second and third rounds, but once she found herself still in with a chance of winning and the finishing line fast approaching, that killer instinct returned.

Cometh the hour, cometh Leona.

Occasionally watching sport, you just know something special is going to happen. You knew it when prime Tiger Woods had that 15-footer on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines in 2008. You knew it when the ball dropped to Steven Gerrard in injury time of extra time in the 2006 FA Cup final. You knew it when Karl Lacey lofted a high ball towards Michael Murphy in the 2012 All-Ireland Football Final. You knew it when Andrew Maertens pitched the ball out wide to Jonah Lomu who had half the English defence and 55 metres between himself and the try-line in the 1999 World Cup. You knew it when Patrick Mahomes needed to lead the Kansas City Chiefs on a 75-yard drive in overtime or watch the San Francisco 49ers win the Superbowl.

And you knew that Leona Maguire was going to reach into the top drawer and produce a ‘shot of the year’ contender. And Dermot Byrne, Leona’s caddie, knew it too. “Lets hit the shot of the year here,” he told her. Byrne is a hugely experienced caddie and he knows what you can and cannot say to a player in that situation. And he knows Leona, knows what she’s capable of and knows that telling her that the ‘shot of the year’ was required wouldn’t see her shrink from the task, that she’d embrace it and she’d produce it.

“I knew no Irish girl had ever won on the LET before. So, that putt was for me, that putt was for my family, and that putt was for Ireland. It’s a proud moment for all of us,” she’d say in the aftermath, allowing a rare hint of emotion to creep into her voice. And it wasn’t because of the €69,000 and change she’d just earned, wasn’t because she’d arrested a gentle slide down the Rolex World Rankings, and wasn’t even because twin sister Lisa was on hand to share the special moment, it was because she’d broken another barrier, provided another moment of inspiration for countless aspiring golfers – particularly female golfers – in her native land.

One only has to look at the packed galleries that followed her religiously for eight days at Dromoland Castle across the 2022 and 2023 KPMG Women’s Irish Opens to appreciate that she is by far the biggest draw of the tournament – tournaments that are by far the biggest draws for spectators on the LET schedule.

Women’s golf in Ireland is booming. Seven Irish girls made the matchplay section of the Women’s Amateur Championship at Portmarnock, Lauren Walsh is making waves in her rookie season on the LET, Sara Byrne is about to turn professional and has all the tools to make an instant splash on tour, and Aine Donegan became an instant household favourite at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach in 2023.

And who was it that inspired each of these? Leona Maguire.

She showed them what was possible, and continues to do so. If Pádraig Harrington’s successes paved the way for Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Shane Lowry to get their hands on major championship silverware, then Leona Maguire has proven that the women from this small island nation can punch above their weight and find themselves dining at the top table.

Harrington has that competitive gene too. He gets that mad look in his eye, he loves a challenge, he works his tail off, and when his back is against the wall, that’s when he’s at his best.

Leona’s back was against the wall at Centurion and she came out swinging, just as you knew she would.

Because that’s what all the great competitors do.

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