BELLEAIR, FLORIDA | Before this year’s Solheim Cup at Inverness, the name Leona Maguire didn’t ring many bells outside the women’s golf community. Hers was a story you would’ve had to follow since her collegiate days as a Duke Blue Devil to understand the magnitude of what she’s accomplished and the high bar she set for her successors.
Maguire was a two-time ANNIKA Award winner who set the record with 135 weeks as No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. She finished second in the NCAA National Championships twice and was a four-time All-American. Not to mention, she represented Ireland at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, finishing in a tie for 21st. And she won the R&A’s prestigious Women’s Amateur Championship in 2017.
Though she’s been a professional since mid-2018, the Solheim Cup in Toledo foisted the Irishwoman to the forefront after Maguire went on an unbeatable tear, carding 4 ½ points for the victorious European side. She was, by all accounts, the woman of the match. After her performance, the collective golf world was jonesing for more Leona. Fans wanted to know everything they could about the 26-year-old. Ireland welcomed her home with open arms and Maguire, no matter how the rest of her career turns out, will always be remembered for the 2021 Solheim.
“It was basically like St. Patrick's Day in Ireland,” she said. “The best part was seeing people happy and excited again. I brought a smile and joy to so many people. We had minimal crowds in Toledo, but we knew people were following along on social media at home. People that never normally watch golf, people that normally never watch women's golf. It was nothing like I've ever experienced before.
“It was incredible. I went through my hometown in a convertible gold BMW with a LEONA license plate. For them to see me compete, they kind of understood what I do now a little bit. It was nice to see them excited about golf, and hopefully there are a few young girls and boys in Ireland that have taken up golf because of that.”
After the hoopla, it was back to work for Maguire, back to the grind of regular-season tour stops, back down to Earth. Coming into this week’s Pelican Women’s Championship presented by Konica Minolta and Raymond James, she hadn’t seen anything better than a top-35. But with coach Shane O’Grady stateside for the first time in two years and a renewed confidence in her ball-striking, Maguire fired a bogey-free, 8-under 62, good for the 18-hole lead and besting both the course and tournament records by two.
“I didn't hit my irons very well in Korea,” she said. “I really struggled with the grasses so it's nice to be back on Bermuda again for a few weeks. I hit a lot of greens and holed some nice putts. Probably the best I've drove it in quite a while. Had a lot of control over my golf ball today which is key on this golf course just the way the greens are. They're definitely more receptive than last year, so nice to be able to go at a few more pins. Just getting that neutral ball flight back in. I play my best when I have little or no shape on my ball so getting back to that. That's been good here. Being able to hit it in those right sections of the greens, and even when I slightly missed the green it was still a pretty simple two-putt.”
While her scores have been a wee bit sluggish as of late, Maguire isn’t a stranger to the top of the leaderboard. She’s had five top-10 finishes this season, including two close calls at the LOTTE Championship and Meijer LPGA Classic. As far as breaking tournament and course records go, Leona is blissfully unaware of how many times she’s done so. And that says more about where her head is at than anything. The focus is simply on the golf shots, on giving herself as many birdie opportunities as possible, on tracking down that elusive first win.
But it’s the confidence derived from her world-beating week at Inverness that’s made Maguire even more deadly on the course. And it’s the lessons she learned that week and the faith her team and her country had in her that are the most validating, proving to Maguire that she’s more than capable of becoming one of the game’s best.
“Solheim, it's a team event, a match play event. It's a little bit different. I think I was a little bit surprised by how much confidence Beany had in me and the captains and my teammates as well,” Maguire said. “Obviously, that's a confidence booster when you have the validation of your peers as well. But also being able to hit those shots when I needed it. I felt like I holed putts when I really needed to at Solheim.
“I mean, any time you play with the best players in the world you try and pick up from them, learn from them. It was nice to be in that team environment again. I had missed that from Duke. It almost felt like I was back in college again in Solheim. I suppose I'm trying to get back to that mentality a little bit. Just believing in myself and playing my own game and doing what I do best.”