The conveyor belt of top-class Irish women golfers shows no signs of stopping with Lauren Walsh the latest standout biding her time in the amateur ranks before an inevitable switch to the pro circuit.
From a humble Kildare upbringing where camogie and Gaelic football were her preferred sports pre-teens, one broken arm too many on the GAA pitch prompted Walsh to look for pastures new and with her sister Clodagh taking up a membership down the road at Castlewarden Golf Club, she found herself tagging along.
From playing three or four holes off a handicap of 54 to being picked up by a developmental panel with the ILGU, the golfing bug bit Walsh quickly and her progression was just as swift, with Shane O’Grady, long-time coach of Solheim Cup star Leona Maguire, overlooking her rapidly improving swing.
“I started working with Shane when I was around 14 – I played off 16 at the time,” Walsh recalls, just out of lectures at Wake Forest University where she’s into her Junior year.
“It was funny – my dad brought my sister to him for a lesson the week before and they were saying ‘Clodagh has a younger sister, Lauren’ and Shane was like ‘Oh, why isn’t she here?’ And then I was there the next time and it snowballed from there. I just loved getting better at the game.”
Walsh went from developmental panels with the ILGU to soon establishing herself as an ever-present, first in the girls set-up before graduating to the women’s team. A Leinster and Connacht Girls champion, she was also Connacht Women’s champion in 2018 before representing Ireland at the Youth Olympics.
Things were happening quickly for the talented teen and colleges in America soon came calling. With Walsh’s signature in high demand, the then Transition Year student had a multitude of options on the table, but the self-described ‘academic’ wasn’t going to accept any old offer from the States.
“I was actually looking to do Medicine back home anyway,” Walsh remembers. “So I was looking out for good golf offers that came with strong academic programmes and I was shocked when the offers started coming in on September 1st.
“Emails were coming in at 2am in the morning – not during the day as you’d expect – literally as soon as they could send them and it was really exciting. We sat down and researched and decided on Wake Forest and we couldn’t have made a better decision.
“Wake is very academic and it also has a renowned golf programme. When you’re 15, 16, when you’re thinking about going to America, it is scary, but the more I played, I just knew I loved competing. I loved moving up levels and I figured if this is what I wanted to do, then America was the place to do it.”
Walsh embarked on a Degree in Mathematical Business with a Minor in Statistics, moving away from her once preferred medical field because lab work was set to clash with afternoon golf practice.
You see, while Walsh remained fully focussed on her academics, the competitor inside her was hell-bent on making the Wake Forest team – far from a given with only five girls starting each week of competition. Walsh mustn’t have read that script, however. The Freshman hit the ground running, making all seven starts in her debut season.
“At the very beginning we had qualifying rounds and although it was quite tight, I managed to make the first team,” she recalls. “Then if you finish in the top-10, you get exempted into the next event and I finished top-10 in my first three events so I was exempt pretty much for the entire fall season.
“I’d just come off a really good summer back home. I’d finished top-10 at the ISPS HANDA World Invitational and that gave me a lot of confidence going over.
“I also had a really good mindset. A lot of people can go over there and get caught up in what they need to do to make the team. My coaches back home helped me think about things longer term.
“It was a question of ‘what do I need to improve in the long run to get better?’ and that bigger picture view helped take care of things in the short term.”
Uprooting your life at such a young age and traveling across the Atlantic is never easy but Walsh could lean on ties to home at Wake Forest where Assistant Coach Aaron O’Callaghan and men’s team star Mark Power are always there to lend a familiar ear should she need it.
“It’s really nice to have other Irish people here,” Walsh admits. “They realise what you’re going through, and even with little things that we say, where Americans might look at you clueless, they understand what you’re talking about.”
If Walsh was ever misunderstood off the course, there was no mistaking her intentions on it with the Castlewarden product a leading light for the Deacs in what was a remarkably smooth transition to college life in the States.
With six top-25 finishes from seven starts, she led the team to four wins in her freshman season before kicking on in her Sophomore year, being named a WGCA Second Team All-American before earning selection to the 2021 Arnold Palmer Cup International team off the back of consecutive second place finishes at the UCF Challenge and Palmetto Intercollegiate.
Walsh was making her mark in America, and has been ever since, riding the crest of a wave of momentum as women’s golf continues to bridge the gender gap with the men.
“It’s been very cool, especially over here,” Walsh says. “At Wake we have equal opportunities to say our men’s team anyway but you can definitely feel it.
“With Leona playing so well at the Solheim Cup and Stephanie [Meadow] doing well over the years – the role models little girls have now is absolutely incredible. When I was growing up I remember going to the Irish Open when I was 11 or 12 and seeing all these players and it definitely inspired me.
“Even when you look at the amount of girls coming over here to compete in college, those numbers have increased. It’s huge for the game and I definitely think things are moving in the right direction so I’m excited to see where it goes from here.”
If Walsh’s currently trajectory continues to soar, then she might just turn to the professional circuit at the dawn of a new era for women’s golf. To borrow a line from Bob Dylan, ‘the times they are a changin’. In truth, they have been for a while now but with each passing year, that gap between the genders closes further.
It was only two years ago that the oldest golf club on earth, Muirfield, remained in the stone ages, not permitting women members at the club. Not only does the famous Scottish links now invite female members but in 2022, it will host the AIG Women’s Open, a tournament that will boast the largest prize fund in women’s Major championship golf with no less than $6.8 million to play for next year.
Walsh will hope to somehow be part of such an historic experience, not least because she ran the gauntlet alongside the game’s best players at this year’s Carnoustie renewal and came out the other side knowing she has the game to compete at the top tier of women’s golf.
“Coming off the back of the Open, I was playing with the best players in the world in a Major, it doesn’t get any bigger than that,” Walsh says, having taken full advantage of her invite, playing all four rounds to finish tied 42nd.
“I was very nervous the first day but I was able to settle into things for the rest of the week and it made me figure out that ‘yeah, I’m on the right path if that’s something I’d like to do. I’m definitely not a million miles off’.
“I played with some really good players and got to compare my game against theirs. I played an 18-hole practice round with Lexi Thompson. I used to look up to her so much. It’s funny, I got a photo with her when I was 10 or 11 at the Irish Open and then I’m playing a practice round with her at the Women’s Open.
“She spoke about how much she loves team golf and how the Solheim and Curits Cup were always her favourite weeks so she wanted me to treasure those experiences as an amateur.
“That was such an incredible experience. Learning how to deal with my emotions, the nerves, the camera, the media. It’s a different kind of lifestyle but one that will be less intimidating next time it happens.”
The then 20-year old also had a secret weapon on her bag for that first taste of Major action – her sister Clodagh with whom she honed her craft on the fairways of Castlewarden for the best part of the decade. And if ever home comforts were needed, it was on that first tee at Carnoustie, as the return of crowds to golf tournaments brought a noise and energy the likes of which Walsh had never experienced as a player.
“Luckily I had Clodagh on the bag and she knows me more than anyone so I was just taking deep breaths on the first teebox – for me it’s all just about breathing,” Walsh says.
“I got the tee shot away but I said it to her as we were walking down the fairway, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been this nervous before’. My hands were shaking and she was like, ‘It’s OK, just keep breathing!’
“I got through the first couple of holes and after every shot she was saying ‘just keep breathing’, but that definitely helped! Even just to have her there to joke about it made it so much better.”
Although Carnoustie was an undoubted milestone moment, Walsh had no time whatsoever to allow the magnitude of it to sink in. Instead, in what was a milestone summer for her career so far, Walsh found herself on the road south to Conwy in Wales for her maiden Curtis Cup appearance against Team USA. Five years earlier she had claimed the match winning point at the 2016 Girls Home Internationals at the same venue. Now she was lining out alongside Irish teammate Annabel Wilson for Team GB&I
“I drove straight from Carnoustie down to Conwy for the Curtis Cup so I had no time to process anything,” Walsh says. “I had genuinely two of the biggest weeks of my golfing career back-to-back so it wasn’t until I was sat on the plane for seven hours after Curtis Cup on the way back to America that I could think about how incredible the two weeks had been.”
After going into the Sunday singles at Conwy tied at 6 points apiece, Walsh proved powerless to prevent a ruthless U.S. display on the final day; the Stars and Stripes completing a convincing 12½ – 7½ victory. Still, result aside, the match made memories that will last a lifetime, not least because they were moments shared with family and friends permitted to travel to Wales to soak in the action.
“It was definitely one of the best weeks of my life,” Walsh says. “We had such a great team that all bonded really well together. I played some of the best golf that I’ve ever played against some absolutely incredible players.
“But just that team atmosphere and hanging out in the team room in the evenings. All those memories you take off the golf course are just as special and with the next one only ten months away, that’s exciting too because you don’t have to wait two years for another chance.
“Playing at home, in front of home crowds, lots of family and friends travelled over and hearing your name being called out on the first tee was pretty special. Everybody cheers and then that silence before you hit – it’s something I’ll never forget.”
No doubt it’s something her proud parents won’t forget in a hurry either. From driving Lauren and Clodagh up and down the country, to all the gym sessions and dawn tee-times, to installing a putting green and practice net back home, they’ve been fully invested in Walsh’s development from the beginning, 100% committed with no sacrifice too great in giving their daughter every chance to fly on the fairways of Ireland and beyond.
Their sacrifice is all the more remarkable when Walsh reveals “we’re not really a ‘golfy’ family”.
“Dad plays a little bit now but he only really took it up a year or two after my sister did – he’s more into GAA. In saying that, he’s probably played a lot more the last couple of years because I’m not at home,” she laughs.
“Mam’s not into sport but she works with me a lot on controlling my emotions. It was actually one of the things when I got recruited to America that really stood to me.
“A lot of the coaches complimented me on my body language and how I carried myself and I took a lot of pride in that because it wasn’t something that came natural to me in the beginning.
“Because I came from Gaelic and camogie, I remember I used to get so frustrated when I started playing golf because when I hit a bad shot I’d get really angry and mam and dad were like, ‘Lauren, you can’t do that on the golf course!’
“I’ve learned how to keep my emotions in check and it’s become a strength. I think it may feed into my consistency as well because I’m able to keep it fairly level headed regardless of the situation. Mam might be a non-golfer but she’s an expert on the emotions side of things!
“They’ve sacrificed so much so for them to have been with me this summer at The Open and the Curtis Cup supporting me meant the world. They’ve been here for the entire ride and I’m so grateful for everything they’ve done for me.”
Walsh might not realise it yet, but she’s already paying that sacrifice back. It’s not about money. It’s about giving back to a game that’s given her so much already. From peering over the magic rope lining the fairways to the stars as a kid, now Walsh is the one doing the inspiring, another crucial cog in this well-oiled Irish machine that continues to churn out women golfers for young girls to aspire to.
“It is a little strange,” says the now 21-year old of her role reversal. “Especially after this year, playing Curtis Cup and getting a chance to playing in The Open.
“I remember watching the Curtis Cup on TV, watching the Maguire twins and Charley Hull and thinking it was so cool. Especially in Curtis Cup when all the little kids are watching and asking for autographs – it was all very surreal but at the same time it is pretty cool because I was that little girl once who looked up to all these players.
“I guess I don’t really think of myself as a role model but it’s just one of those things that goes along with it. Everybody else has done their part to grow the game so if me playing well or supporting some little girls when they’re out or saying ‘Hi’ can help that, it’s something I’m really excited to do.”
For now, Walsh’s foot remains firmly on the pedal as she continues to accelerate through the golfing ranks at home and abroad. The current top ranked Irish amateur, male or female, in tenth spot on WAGR at the time of writing, Walsh has showed no signs of stopping, scoring successive top-15 finishes for the Deacs to kick off her season, including a team victory at the Bryan National.
With Shane O’Grady overseeing her swing from home, and Leona Maguire to aspire to, Walsh admits it’s time to reassess her goals as her star shines bright, not least because she’s been ticking them off at a rate of knots all summer.
“It was funny, when I started with Shane I was about fifteen and we sat down and drew out a pyramid and at the top of the pyramid was Curtis Cup. I saved the piece of paper and all so after I got selected for the team, I text him and said ‘looks like a need a new pyramid’,” she laughs.
“I have goals every week and for every tournament but I’ve ticked off some big ones already this year which is nice so once we get into the off-season, I’ll take some time to reassess and see where I want to go over the next couple of years. For now though, I’m just trying to enjoy it.”
10 QUICKFIRE QUESTIONS WITH LAUREN
Q -Favourite course in Ireland?
Royal County Down
Q- What club could you not live without in your bag?
Q – Who is the best player you ever played with and why?
Darren Clarke – he’s an Open Champion so I’ll struggle to beat that! He hosts the Champions weekend. I did it for two years, once in Portugal and once in Portmarnock. It was very cool!
Q – Dream four-ball from any walk of life?
Interesting… I’ll go Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy & Michael Jordan
Q – Any pre-round ritual?
No! I’m not superstitious and I don’t want to be. If I didn’t get the chance to do whatever it was then it would really stress me out!
Q – Death-row meal?
Lasagna – I love a good lasagna
Q – If you could pick a golfer in Ireland to hole a six foot putt to save your life, who would it be and why?
My teammate Rachel Keuhn. We have putting competitions on a daily basis so if anyone’s going to hole it, it’s her.
Q – Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Just enjoy the journey. There’s lots of ups and downs and all that but to keep going you’ve got to enjoy it.
Q – What Netflix show are you currently binging?
I haven’t started yet but I’ve seen the trailer for Manifest so I think I might start that soon.
Q – Best place you’ve ever been to play golf?
Argentina was cool for the Youth Olympics – it was very different