It was about 20 feet, maybe a few inches less, right down the fall-line. Leona Maguire looked at her final birdie putt of Saturday afternoon from all angles. There’s no doubt she’d had that one before. There are few putts at Tiburon Golf Club that this field hasn’t seen. But for Maguire, the one on 18 meant a little more. Not only would it have given her sole possession of the lead going into the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship, the putt would have tied the course record on a windy day when no one saw that kind of round coming.
Maguire didn’t make the birdie. The putt slipped low and left. But she did make a 2-footer coming back for par to shoot 63 and enter the final round at 15-under par, tied for the lead with first- and second-round leader Lydia Ko. The two are five shots clear of their nearest chaser.
“My caddie has been talking a lot about patience this week and just committing to my targets,” Maguire said. “I did that really well today and got a few rolling early on, got some momentum and, yeah, nice to see a few (putts) drop.”
Typical Irish understatement. Leona rolled in putts left and right, including a 35-footer on 16 for the fourth of five birdies she posted on the back nine. The total number was nine with no bogeys, a round that veteran caddie Dean Herden, who works for In Gee Chun, called, “Incredibly impressive in these conditions.”
Chun played with Maguire last week in the Pelican Women’s Championship and Herden said, “She drives it so well. Those sort of knuckle balls off the driver bore through the wind. It’s the perfect ball flight for this course and these conditions.”
Maguire agreed. “The hole was looking big,” she said. “I was trying to hit it as close as I could. Hit some really nice 5 and 6 hybrids on those few holes (into) the wind. I was just dialed in today.
“You definitely have to be in control of your ball flight, picking your shots. I think it's nice coming back here a few times. I feel like I've got a better sense each year I've come back here. So, yeah, you just have to take your chances where you get them on certain holes and know which holes that par is a good score. I gave myself a lot of chances and pretty much took nearly all of them.”
Those are the nuts and bolts of an extraordinary day for the Irishwoman who captured her first career victory earlier this year just a few miles north of Naples at the Drive On Championship at Crown Colony.
But facts don’t capture emotion. Watching Maguire in contention is like sitting ringside at a prizefight. Every driver swing is like a hard right cross, every iron a stiff uppercut, and every putt a perfectly timed jab. Behind her Terminator shades and with a walk that is one-part swagger and three parts stalk, Maguire makes every shot exciting and every moment special.
Maybe it’s the fact that no part of her game is extraordinary. She’s not particularly long and she’s doesn’t have a magic touch with the wedges. She carries a 9-wood for goodness sake. But her grit makes her one of the most compelling players in the game, someone who squeezes every ounce out of her game.
“I feel like traditionally long hitters have done well around this golf course,” Maguire said. “I'm not a long hitter by any means, but I feel like I've kind of plotted my way around the course really well and just played to my strengths really.”
One of her strengths is match play. At the Solheim Cup in Toledo last year, she went undefeated in five matches and was heralded by her victorious European teammates as the inspirational leader of the matches. Sunday isn’t quite a match-play situation – Jeongeun Lee6 and Gemma Dryburgh are five shots back and Brook Henderson is six shots out of the lead with bad weather in the forecast – but playing head-to-head with Ko is exactly where Maguire wants to be.
“It's still a stroke play event,” she said. “I feel like it's the kind of golf course that you very much have to focus on every single shot you can. You can't get distracted in any way. There is a lot of trickiness to it. So I'm just going to play as well as I possibly can tomorrow. Whatever Lydia does Lydia does. Just like I did today, I didn't really look at leaderboards today. I’ll do the same tomorrow, and we'll see what happens.”