In the current issue of Irish Golfer Magazine, front cover star Leona Maguire spoke to IGM about her life at Duke University, her recent British Amateur victory and of course what lies ahead for 2018 as she looks to turn pro.
It feels like I’ve known Leona Maguire for a lifetime. One half of the prodigious golfing twins from Cavan, I first heard of the girls when sister Lisa won the Tiger Woods endorsed Young Masters Golf Junior Series at La Manga in 2005, where a certain Leona finished second. They were just ten at the time.
Fast-forward a dozen years and although Lisa remains ultra-competitive, Leona has somewhat surpassed her sister in her achievements, and has been the subject of many a glowing golf report to pass through my hands since. So when the opportunity finally arose to speak to her, I opened by asking what I would of any twin, ‘do you think you’d be as good if the other never existed?’
“No, probably not. Growing up we’ve always competed against each other and for a long time Lisa was the main person I wanted to beat. That competition between us brought both of us on. Anytime you’ve got someone to practice and compete against that’s as good as yourself or better than you then you’re always going to improve.”
So often packaged as the perfect pair in the media, I soon realised why as Leona answered most questions with “we” rather than “I” despite my focus firmly on her. Seemingly inseparable from birth, I shudder to think what would’ve happened if the sisters were split when college called. Scholarship offers from the top universities in America are like gold dust at the best of times, but what’s rarer is the Maguire’s potential. Both sisters were accepted to Duke University, making the trip from Cavan to North Carolina a much less daunting one than first imagined.
“Lisa was a huge help. To go that far and to have a piece of home with me all the time was brilliant. We’ve grown up practicing, playing together, doing everything together so I think that made it seem not all that different. To get a scholarship to the States was one thing but for both of us to be able to get it to the same place was quite special.”
There has always been a certain aura attached to the US college system, but where I hinted at frat parties and untold temptation, Leona pointed to superior facilities and kind winter weather as significant factors in her choosing Duke. But what specifically attracts our top golfers to chase the American Dream when the likes of Maynooth offer an Irish alternative?
“The US College circuit, for any sport but in particular golf, it’s almost like a mini-tour in itself. Three round strokeplay events every other week, played all around the country on a variety of courses and grasses. That’s a huge opportunity for anyone going over to get an experience that you probably wouldn’t get in Ireland. I know they’ve set up an inter-varsity circuit back home which is great but the competition still’s not there.”
“Maynooth’s a great option for some people. I suppose the big thing when anybody asks me about it is, you’ve got to do what’s right for yourself. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind being away from home then it’s an unbelievable opportunity, but if you’re a home bird who likes to play golf in Ireland then Maynooth is a great opportunity as well.”
Even with Lisa by her side however, a slight culture shock wasn’t to be avoided and it was the team based aspects of Duke that proved the biggest adjustment. 5.30am starts to go work out with the team were followed by group practice, regular classes and team playing sessions. She admits that “it’s not something you could’ve really prepared yourself for in Ireland”, but is quick to credit the ILGU in so many other ways.
“The ILGU has been a great help to junior golf in Ireland in general. When I was competing in junior events back when I was 12 or 13 there wasn’t half as many girls playing. It’s great to see how much they’ve grown the game. You need the backing of a national federation like the ILGU. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to go to all the tournaments that I have and had all the opportunities that I did without them.”
Other influences that she consistently acknowledged were Dad Declan and Coach Shane O’Grady, key figures in spotting the twins’ early potential. “Dad started us playing when he brought us up to the Par 3 in Slieve Russell and it was Dad who brought us to Shane O’Grady in Blackbush. Shane has been our coach for over ten years now so I suppose he must’ve spotted with Dad that there was something worth exploring. Shane knows my habits as well as anybody so he’ll be able to spot straightaway if something’s slipping. He’s been over to Duke during breaks because it’s one thing to have it in videos but it’s another thing to do it in person.”
She’s so calculated in her answers that it’s easy to forget she’s only 22. But with such talent comes great responsibility if you decide to pursue it. Still, has there ever been days where the gift felt like a burden?
“It’s a lot of hard work and there is sacrifice but the rewards and opportunities I’ve gotten out of it have definitely been worth that ten-fold. At the same time it’s all about balance and I can still enjoy myself off the golf course. I suppose when you get to travel the world and play in events like the Olympics, those sacrifices start to seem pretty small in comparison.”
Spectacularly grounded, she credits her parents, Declan and Breda, with having “done a pretty good job” at keeping her so. But outside their tutelage, how does that attitude translate to the college campus at Duke? She’s the World’s Number One Amateur Golfer and the WGCA’s collegiate player of the year for a second time, having never finished worse than sixth all season I might add. She could be excused for getting her head caught in the odd cloud formation.
“That’s the really great thing about being at Duke. There’s so many incredible athletes and just students in general that I could be sitting in class next to a guy who’s heading to the NBA and about to earn millions of dollars or next to someone who’s fighting the cure for cancer. When you’re surrounded by people who are achieving so many great things on a daily basis, it puts your thing in perspective.”
It’s a mindset embodied by her commitment to her studies and it should come as no surprise with her parents both teachers that her Psychology, Business and Accounting Degree gets as much attention as her golf game.
“Mam always wanted us to have an education and a degree is no load to carry. I remember quite a while ago I was at an awards ceremony and Padraig Harrington was there, and I remember him saying that the same discipline it took to complete his studies was the same discipline he needed for golf. That’s something that has stayed with me. Your degree gives you options down the line, even if it’s just security in your back pocket.”
Having a backup plan seems sensible when you’re attempting to break into one of the world’s most competitive industries, but there was a time when Leona was considering a premature leap of fate. It was an outside pressure, possibly conceived by those wanting to cash in on her talent early, but it was never something she seemed comfortable handling.
“A lot of people are looking for that next big Irish lady pro who’s maybe going to emulate the success of Rory, Padraig or Shane. I know there’s been a lot of people who have followed and supported both mine and Lisa’s career and they’re maybe eager for us to make that next jump. But for me it’s about doing it when I’m ready. I will turn pro, but it will be on my terms and when I want to do it, and not when people think or want me to do it.”
Before that happens, (in May next year), Leona hopes to finally capture a National Championship title for Duke in an event where she’s been Silver Medallist two of the last three years. “That would be the cherry on top. It’s the only thing I have left that I would like to tick off before I do graduate so there’ll be a big push next year to get that individual one and to get the team one too. It’s by far the biggest event of the year. The Golf Channel’s picked it up for the last three years so that’s made it into an even bigger thing so it would be great to finish with that big double.”
When she does eventually move to the paid ranks, Leona will be no average rookie, having been exposed to many main tour events already in her career. She confesses that those experiences haven’t always gone to plan, but places huge value on what she’s learned from each venture into elite company.
“I think the courses are definitely longer so over the last few years I’ve tried to hit it further. All the top pros, their short games are very impressive, so having a short game as good as you possibly can to make sure that when you’re playing well you’re holing those putts for birdies, and when you’re not quite playing so well, you’re able to get up and down and hang on in there.”
Experiences won’t come much tougher than her appearance in July’s US Women’s Open at Trump National, where Maguire missed the cut after a rain battered second round in New Jersey.
“It was probably one of the toughest courses I’ve ever played. It was in fabulous condition but we played it near 6,900 yards so it was by far the longest I’ve ever played, and it was soft so that was very demanding off the tee, but you had to put it in play at the same time. Greens were running 13, 14 on the Stimpmeter so there was really no place to hide for anybody.”
One man who did have the opportunity to hide but instead chose the spotlight was ‘The Donald’ himself, though Leona was diplomatic in her opinion of the divisive President’s role at the event.
“A lot of the girls were happy that The Open got so much coverage. Maybe it got more coverage than it might’ve done if he had not been involved. He’s always been a big supporter of ladies golf and he put a lot of money into Trump National. It was definitely a great venue. Security was obviously very tight. Going in in the morning we had the drug dogs out and all of that.”
“He made an appearance on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, sort of waved out to the crowd every twenty minutes or so. But to have a President come to a US Open is definitely a big thing for ladies golf. Whether people like him or not, for us to get that attention, it is a good thing. And he’s actually the first US President to attend an Open so you have to give him credit for doing that too.”
The whole experience has only whetted her appetite for similar opportunities and August’s Ladies British Open will be her next big chance to make a global impression. Maguire famously won the British Amateur Championship back in June, the significance of which is only just starting to hit home since her return to Cavan.
“I knew it was one of the biggest events in amateur golf but it wasn’t until I got home and read all the messages from people that maybe I hadn’t heard from in quite a while that the reality of it sunk in – getting messages from Paul McGinley and Padraig and people like that was great. I was probably pretty tired by the end of the week and running on adrenaline so I think it probably took getting home and seeing that reaction for it to really sink in as to what I had actually achieved.”
With Leona’s capabilities we should never be surprised. Maguire’s taking a realistic view when it comes to managing expectations for her upcoming rookie year on Tour.
“The big thing is to try and get into as many LPGA events as I can. Obviously Q-School won’t be until later in the year but I can get up to six invites and try to qualify for as many as I can after that. It’s a different set-up but having balanced school and golf over the past few years and golfing week to week on different courses, grasses and weather, I think that’s gonna be great preparation. It will take a little bit of time. Obviously I’d love to jump straight in and get as fast a start as I possibly can but I think it’s definitely going to be a challenge at a time when women’s golf is probably as strong now as it’s ever been.”
When she does take that step into professional company, she’ll have done so having conquered the amateur game on both sides of the pond. Her destiny is to become Ireland’s leading lady on the LPGA Tour, and about the only fear I could muster in caution was her losing her accent along the way.
“I have to admit when I’m over in the States I probably have a bit of a twang – my friends back home do give me a bit of a slagging but once I’m back here for a day or two my Cavan accent is strong again. In America they think I talk incredibly fast so I do slow down when I’m over there but no, I don’t think there’s any danger of me developing too much of an American accent. So long as I keep coming back to Cavan I’ll maintain my accent for quite a while.”