'Going to college in America is one of the best decisions that I've ever made and definitely helped my golf'

Newly-turned professional Leona Maguire chats to The42 about a hectic few years on and off the golf course.

IT’S NOT OFTEN that Leona Maguire gets the chance to spend time at home.

A quiet and more chilled few weeks back in Cavan as a whirlwind year comes to an end. The newly-turned professional golfer is more than pleased to enjoy the peace and quiet while she can, catch up with family and friends and, of course, play some golf.

Leona Maguire Leona Maguire was speaking as part of the 20x20 campaign. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

That’s a given.

She doesn’t often get the chance to pause and take breath, break up the intense schedule of the past few years. But there’s still golf to be played. There’s more to do in 2018.

“It’s nice to get home. It’s down-time but I can’t down tools by any means,” Maguire says, explaining that she has an European Tour event in Spain and Tour School in Morocco as her final ports of call for the year.

“I’m very much getting ready for them. It’ll be more around Christmas time that I’ll have a break, per se, instead of now.”

From a hectic college season to sealing her degree after a four-year stay at Duke University, and of course finally making the transition to the professional ranks, it really has been a whirlwind few months. To get back to her roots, to where it all started, is nice.

The Slieve Russell Hotel and Country Club was where the dream first started for Leona and her twin sister Lisa, and from there, the two Maguires took every step up the ladder together.

Before they focused solely on golf though, there was a nice mix, as there often is for any successful athlete. Skills are transferable, and if not, attitude and learnings are.

“When we were younger, anything that was going we played,” she recalls, reeling in the years. You can almost hear her smiling through the phone as the memories flood in.

“Dad would be into GAA so we played a lot of football, a lot of soccer and did a lot of swimming growing up to the point where we had to choose. There just wasn’t enough time in the day to do them all. Sport’s been a big part of our life.”

She recounts a few trips to Breffni Park to watch Cavan in action and even now, when they ring and Skype home, football is always the first topic of conversation with their father. 

Leona Maguire Leona Maguire at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Day 12. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

He was always eager to have his daughters involved and in the thick of the action, and while they were mad for swimming and football, they never really warmed to golf back then. It wasn’t for his want of trying though, bringing them to the driving range and out on the greens alongside him at the weekends time and time again. 

The sisters stuck to their guns though. Until Lisa broke her elbow and that knocked her out of pretty much everything for quite some time. Along the road to recovery, a doctor recommended that she get into racket sports. And Mr Maguire had just the answer.

“Dad brought us out on the par-3 course, we played quite a bit that summer and it snowballed from there really….”

At 15 or so, the other sports fell by the wayside and both put their entire focus on golf. There simply wasn’t enough time in the day to do all, and they couldn’t physically be in two places at once. 

Golf was prioritised one day and that’s been the way ever since. Getting on Irish teams and travelling abroad more often made the decision easier, she admits, adding that there was never a sense that one sister may go one way, and the other another.

“Growing up, we did everything together. Everything we did, we did together,” she smiles.

Leona Maguire Leona Maguire competing in the 2016 Curtis Cup. Colm O'Neill / INPHO Colm O'Neill / INPHO / INPHO

“We were always very competitive, it didn’t really matter what it was – whether it was sport or anything. We were fairly at the same level when we were playing golf when we were younger. Lisa was a bit better than me, but it was always flipped around.

“Sometimes I’d beat her, sometimes she’d beat me. There wasn’t a big gap between the two of us.”

That competitiveness, that closeness, surely there were a few tiffs along the way? A few bumps along the road?

“I wouldn’t say fights,” she grins. “There would have been a few quiet evenings at home in the house after some of the tournaments when one had won, alright!

“But I’d say that’s the good thing, you’re trying to beat the other person even more. That definitely brought us on, especially when we were younger.

“There were a few finals, I think it was 2007 or 2008, I beat Lisa in the final of the Irish Ladies over in Westport and a couple of months later, we were in the final of the Irish Girls Clubs over in Mullingar and she beat me.

“It was more banging against our heads at the time, but there was never a grudge held or anything like that.”

As they established themselves more and more, the prodigiously talented teenagers from Ballyconnell grew and grew. Their respective — and collective — stars continued to rise, the trophies and plaudits mounted. 

And then came the chance to go to America on collegiate scholarships, and progress there. Together. Continuing their journeys as a unit at Duke.

Leona Maguire Maguire during the Curtis Cup tournament. Lorraine O’Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O’Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

“We were very lucky to have each other out there. It didn’t seem all that different…. we’d grown up all the way together, gone to school together, played sport together. We made that transition to college as simply as possible.

“It was definitely a little tough at the start but we were so busy with golf and everything else, you didn’t have much time to miss home as much.”

“I loved it,” she continues of the experience as a whole. “It was either go to college here and maybe not play golf, or go to America and do both.

“That was one of the big drawing points of going to America, to be able to do both and to play against a very high level of competition, play on a lot of really good golf courses in really good weather as well.

“I’d say that going to college in America is one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made and definitely helped my golf. It was also a lot of fun there, [we] made a lot of good friends and had some really cool experiences. Getting to travel all over, the facilities are amazing, you’ve all the best coaches and all that too.”

But getting a full education was probably the most important thing of all, she adds: “With Mam and Dad being teachers, they were always big on making sure we got our education.

“Sport is unpredictable. You never know when you could pick up an injury or when things could change, so having that in your back pocket is important. Hopefully you never need it but obviously, it’s a nice reassurance to know you have it and you can use it if and when you need it.

“That was one thing Pádraig Harrington said to us a few years ago when we met him at an awards ceremony. He said the discipline it takes to get your degree is the same kind of discipline it takes to succeed in the professional game.”

That’s something that stuck with her, and has paid dividends since graduating from her Psychology, Business and Accounting course. Sponsors like KPMG and Allianz appreciate the fact that she saw out her education, and that’s reaped its rewards.

The much-anticipated step into the pro ranks had been coming for some time. Leona enjoyed a really successful college career, shooting to prominence as the world’s number one amateur.

Leona Maguire Leona Maguire is an ambassador for the 20x20 campaign. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

A two-time national Player of the Year, recipient of the prestigious Mark H. McCormick Medal for leading amateur three times, the Rio Olympics. It all built up to one thing: finally going pro, and on her own terms.

“It was obviously a big adjustment,” she reflects. “It was something I had been looking forward to for a long time.

“It happened all very quickly. I finished up in college in May, two weeks later I was playing my first pro event in New Jersey. It’s been a hectic summer ever since.”

That first event, the ShopRite LPGA Classic in early June, was one she won’t forget anytime soon. And fittingly, Leona made her pro debut that day too. Right by her side. As per.

“It was a really nice one to start with,” she grins. “Being in New Jersey as well, there was a lot of Irish people who came out.

“There were tricolours and a few people in Cavan jerseys out. The Irish are great for getting behind an Irish person competing anywhere in the world.

“That was a nice one to start with absolutely. That’s one I’ll not forget for a long time. You’re always going to remember your first professional start. I’ve some really good memories from that one, it was a good week to prove to myself that I could compete at that level as well.”

She continues: “I thought the amateur scene was a lot of golf and a lot of travel, busy or whatever, but I don’t think I quite realised how busy it would be this summer.

“From week to week, a new tournament every week, a new place. I really enjoyed it. Even though there was a lot of travelling, not really any breaks, that sort of reaffirmed to me that I really want to do it.

“Now, I get a bit of time to think back. Going from week to week, you’re kind of just running on adrenaline and trying to do as well as you can. When I sit down closer to Christmas when everything’s over, it’ll be nice to assess how everything went and to set goals for next year.”

Signed with Modest! Golf, set up and co-directed by Niall Horan — yes, that guy.

“He’s golf mad,” Maguire giggles. “He’d say that himself. He’s probably one of the most obsessed with golf people I’ve met.

“It’s great to have people on board like that that have a genuine interest in what you’re doing. He’s always checking in with where we are and knowing what’s next.

“The whole gang have been a huge help in making the transition to the professional game — myself and Lisa have been very lucky to have a great team around us, we can just play golf and they take care of the rest.”

Leona Maguire Maguire in action at Dun Laoghaire Golf Club. Lorraine O’Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O’Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

There’s no chance of him dragging them into music, she firmly states: “I don’t think anyone would want to hear me singing somehow!”

She’ll stick to the golf… and other bits and pieces.

Through her links with KPMG, she’s been put forward as their ambassador for the recently-launched 20×20 campaign. If you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know what that is, in short it’s an exciting initiative with three main aims: to increase media coverage, boost attendances and ultimately, grow involvement in female sport by 20% by the end of 2020.

She’s delighted to be a driving force behind the campaign and has nothing but the highest of praise for the idea, outlining how it will improve things across the board.

Golf though, she agrees, is ahead in a sense. But there’s still a long way to go.

“We probably are a little bit lucky,” Maguire continues. “To be fair, we’ve always got pretty good coverage in the media and had a good following.

“Obviously, there’s still a huge gap in terms of pay and prize money in the men’s and women’s game. Obviously, you’d like to be a little closer to tennis the way that goes. Tennis is probably the go-to standard. A lot of people compare golf and tennis, but there’s probably still a big difference.

“A lot of the team sports do struggle a lot. You look at the Irish hockey team this summer — until they do something really massive, it takes something that big for people to stand up and take notice.

“It is a real shame, I think Irish female sport is probably at an all-time high right now. A lot of the really good athletes don’t get the credit or the attention they deserve… until they do something really massive — the likes of Katie Taylor, Annalise Murphy winning the Olympic medals and stuff like that.

Katie Taylor celebrates her victory Boxing champion Katie Taylor. Emily Harney / INPHO Emily Harney / INPHO / INPHO

“We’re definitely lucky that golf is more to the forefront of the media and stuff like that… but like with all the sports, there’s still a long way to go to be level with the guys.” 

While she opens up more and more and compares things through the years, the topic of role models comes up. And just as fellow 20×20 ambassador and Ireland soccer international Louise Quinn did with The42 recently, Maguire spoke candidly on it.

“Growing up I would have looked up to Pádraig Harrington and Tiger Woods, then in GAA and anything like that. I can relate to it, growing up with that personal experience it’s easy to get on board.”

Then there’s her as a role model though.

“I’m aware that I have a bit of a platform. I’ve met a lot of young girls at different tournaments and events, it’s always nice when you can give back.

“Golf’s given me a lot over the last few years and it’s nice for me to give back in whatever way I can — to encourage, and make people aware that there are those opportunities in sport.

“A lot of people give up in secondary school… it doesn’t have to just be a hobby, and you can keep doing it all the way up.”

“It is a little strange,” she concedes, on being seen in that light, as a role model.

“It doesn’t seem that long ago since I was going to Irish Opens or whatever to get autographs, sign golf balls and get pictures. It’s strange when I have people coming up to me, asking.

“You sort of do a double-take and look behind you to make sure they’re not asking somebody else. Anytime you can help spur on younger people to take up golf is great. They’ll talk about those meetings for a long time as well.

“Sometimes I get projects done for school sent to me, that’s always really nice to see. It’s strange but you remember when you were in school and younger like that, and it brings a smile to your face.

“That bit of encouragement to know that you are making a difference drives you on, and it gives you a lot of help along the way.”

It’s all about driving on at this stage. Finishing 2018 on a high with her last two European Tour stops over the next few weeks, the reflection and planning over Christmas before attacking 2019 full throttle.

All guns blazing, bigger and better.

“Absolutely!” she concludes. “Work hard over the winter and hit the ground running as soon as possible, build on what I’ve been doing.”

And no doubt, she’ll continue to do just that.

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