Leona Maguire has taken the long route to the higher echelons of the game. Now it's time to make the next step. Matt Cooper sat down with the Irish sensation carrying a nation's hopes

When Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on the LPGA Tour at the Drive On Championship earlier this year, well-meant conventional wisdom was out in force. Social media, for example, was alive with congratulations, much of it along the lines of “it was only a matter of time” and “it was inevitable”.

Maguire herself was having none of it, telling Today FM the following week that “nothing is inevitable, nothing is guaranteed.”

It’s an attitude that would surprise no-one who has watched her progress in the sport closely, an approach that suggests that should she ever expand into the construction industry, you’d trust her to build a house. The foundations? They’d be solid. Corners? Never cut. The finishing touches? Those of someone who takes their craft seriously.

Her career in the unpaid ranks had the kind of highs which would have prompted others to believe that the time was right to turn pro: making the cut in professional events and the youngest Curtis Cup player at 15, solo second in the LET’s 2015 European Masters, two Curtis Cup triumphs, World Amateur No 1 for 135 weeks, relentless success on the US college circuit.

Education came first, however, and not just off the course. As she told NCG last week, she was also learning on it. “I gained experience on different types of US golf courses and grasses,” she said. “And the experience has definitely made the transition from amateur to pro golf that much easier.”

The amateur highs she experienced might have made others restless but her parents promoted patience.

“Mam and Dad have always stressed to me that there was no need to rush things and that everything will work itself out in due course,” she said. “As teachers they instilled in me the importance of having a strong education. I think that’s given me the peace of mind to now focus on my golfing career, knowing that I will always have a degree in my back pocket.”

In the immediate aftermath of her breakthrough win she said: “It’s been a meticulous journey. I did it my way, the way I wanted to do it, with the help of my team around me. I feel like the way I’ve gone about it, I’ve been prepared and mastered each level.”

The journey has not been without bumps in the road. Upon joining the pro ranks in late 2018, her resilience was tested by an unplanned diversion – to the LPGA’s second tier after an unfulfilled trip to Q School. What might have been an irritant to some, though, became an opportunity to grow and the learning curve was real: in her first brush with a pre-final round lead she wobbled, but she heeded the lesson and a week later claimed the first of two victories that season.

After her rookie LPGA campaign was disrupted by Covid, Maguire landed 14 top-30 finishes, two of them seconds. But more telling was that when every round played at the top level in 2021 was adjusted for field strength and average, one player alone had more than one lap ranked in the top 20. It was not Nelly Korda, not Jin Young Ko, nor was it Lydia Ko. It was Maguire and she had not two but three efforts in there. In other words, there was (high) quality, as well as (high) quantity, on display.

Solheim Cup

The timing of her Solheim Cup debut, which saw her top score for the triumphant Europeans late last year, was probably ideal. The change in format, and a return to the team golf she had so enjoyed in the amateur game, let her off the leash.

Her partner Mel Reid’s grin was more like a lottery winner than a new team-mate when she said: “This girl, honestly, she’s some player.” US captain Pat Hurst added: “She’s one we’re going to fear for years to come.”

Maguire herself has no doubt that the Solheim experience contributed to the first LPGA win. “It built a lot of confidence and instilled within me the knowledge that I can compete and thrive on the global stage. I knew that my game was good enough to win.”

Since the win there have been a few more bumps in that road, but the slow burn that permitted patience has also fostered a philosophical attitude. “Golf is a game that you will never perfect but striving for perfection is what motivates us,” she said. “That goal of getting 1% better every day.”

The next step? “We’re not done,” she told Today FM, agreeing that major championship triumph is next in the cross hairs. It’s a big ask and she appreciates that Ireland awaits. Appreciates, too, that she is part of a golden generation of her nation’s sportswomen, including boxer Katie Taylor and jockey Rachael Blackmore, but she said: “I’ve dealt with expectations for quite a while.”

It’s also a fact that, in addition to carding those three elite rounds last year, she has recorded career-best finishes in four of the five majors in the last 12 months, including tied eighth in this month’s US Women’s Open. It’s what you’d expect of the 27-year-old: a higher level, the same faith in a solid base.

It is somewhat typical of golf’s serendipitous nature that Lexi Thompson finished second behind Maguire in her first win at the highest level because the two have been oddly linked since they were born a mere three months apart either side of New Year 1995.

Both made their debuts in professional events aged 12, both were record breakers throughout their teens, they even played together, aged 16, alongside Stacy Lewis in the 2011 Irish Open.

Their paths to the top of the game have been very different since then, with Thompson winning on the LPGA before she left school, but it would be neat if they were to both become major champions, a celebration of the fact that in golf both the hare and the tortoise can thrive.

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