Life comes full circle in further sign of Leona Maguire's stunning rise
"Everyone was talking about it and everyone had an opinion on it. That's fantastic to see."
It is mid-morning in Florida, for Leona Maguire, when we catch up with her to discuss the latest career bump and recognition of her rapid golfing rise over the past two years.
Those with their ear close to the golfing ground knew all about Leona Maguire and her sister, Lisa from way out. The Cavan sisters were junior golf sensations and whoever had the idea of getting them to bring up the Ryder Cup trophy ahead of the 2006 presentation to the winning European team knew a good thing when they saw it.
Aged only 11 at the time, Leona got to mingle with the likes of Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington, Phil Mickelson, Darren Clarke & Co., see Team Europe beat the Americans soundly and play a small part in some epic celebrations.
Golfing life comes full circle
16 years on from that memorable day, Leona Maguire has been announced as one of the K Club's touring professionals. The announcement follows a similar, recent arrangement with Waterford's Seamus Power, another golfer that has made big strides over the past two years.
"I'm very excited to have The K Club on my golf bag, going forward, and to represent them on my travels across the world," Maguire tells us.
"My first trip to The K Club was 2006 for The Ryder Cup, to watch the golf first and then bring up the trophy, with my sister Lisa, for the closing ceremony. That's something we'll never forget. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.
"It was one of those things where tickets were like gold-dust. Mine and Lisa's first question, when we got the invite, was if we could go watch the golf as well.
"We got to meet all the lads, behind the scenes, after the tournament, when we were all waiting in a green room before the ceremony. We had the pictures with Tiger, Padraig Harrington, Ian Woosnam and all the team. They were on our bedroom wall for quite a while."
In 2021, she would get a chance to write herself into major tournament Europe vs. USA history, but not before first starring in victorious Curtis Cup campaigns, for Duke University and being the leading female amateur for just under three years. Maguire turned professional in 2018 and was selected as a Solheim Cup rookie, last year.
What followed, over the course of that tournament, confirmed Maguire was not a golfing star in the making but one that was already shining bright, and taking it to the world's best pros.
Record-breaking rookie performance
At the Solheim Cup, facing a stacked Team USA line-up, Leona Maguire was a cut above the rest. Teaming up with Georgia Hall and, for three matches, Mel Reid, Maguire won three of her first four outings and split the other for a half.
She then went out early in the Sunday Singles and blitzed the talented Jennifer Kupcho 5&4 to get another blue point on the board. Her 4.5 point haul, out of five matches, was a new Solheim Cup record and was, in a sense, Maguire's real coming out party, in a golfing sense.
"I think you are just riding the momentum and adrenaline, all week. It's all go, so you don't really have time to stop and think, and probably realise just what it is you're doing," Maguire recalls.
"We weren't really on social media all week, so I didn't really grasp the impact it was having back home, and how many people were tuning in. The crowds were 95% American and we had very little [travelling] support over there. But everyone was glued to it, back home. We knew we had huge support back home, but I don't think we fully realised the extent of it until we got home.
"We were just going from match to match and re-setting really quickly. I had two fantastic partners in Mel and Georgia - they both had a huge amount of Solheim Cup experience. They both instilled a great deal of confidence in me - 'You're doing great. Keep going. Keep the foot down. Don't look up. Don't get distracted' - that kind of thing!
"For that singles match on the last day, it was about going out and trying to get that point on the board for us as early as possible. I played some of my best golf in that singles match, which is nice as it can sometimes go either way. Especially having played every match, you can run out of steam, but thankfully I kept going for that last match."
Not long after the event, Maguire got to head home top Cavan and take part in a parade that was held in honour of her achievements with the winning Team Europe collective.
"It grabbed the attention of a lot of people that may not have normally tuned in to women's sport, women's golf, any of that," she says. "Even people from my local community might not always get a chance to watch me playing as the tournaments are often on late, but it seems like everyone was watching the Solheim Cup.
"Everyone was talking about it and everyone had an opinion on it. That's fantastic to see. There's been a huge growth in women's sport, in Ireland, over the past few years. We're doing better than ever. You look at the success of the Irish women's soccer team. They have a lot of momentum, right now.
"You look at how well so many of the Irish did at Tokyo (Olympics) and the success Rachel Blackmore is having right now... Maybe I'm a bit biased, but it seems our female Irish athletes are doing a bit better than the lads for the last while. People have been rallying behind us, and long may it continue."
Getting that first professional win
As if to emphasise how quickly Leona Maguire has risen in the women's professional game, her first ever LPGA Tour win saw her breach the world's top 20, and a jump of 157 places in just 12 months.
Asked if that LPGA Drive On Championship win imbued her with a real confidence that she could truly take on the very best around, she answers:
"More so than that first win, the Solheim gave me that confidence - knowing I could hit the shots when I needed to and competing against the best players in the world when I had teammates relying on me, and not just myself.
"Last year I was very close. Same as with Shane [Lowry] this year. I was second in Hawaii, second at Meijer. It was not that I was getting frustrated, but that impatience was kicking in - I know I'm playing great, I'm so close, so close. What's it going to take to win?
"I was calling home and going, 'I'm playing great. It's nearly there, it's nearly there'. And dad going, 'You need to have patience, you need to have patience'. You don't really want to have patience in those moments. But in Florida, it all came together nicely. It was nice that I didn't just win by one, and I had a few strokes to spare in the end. And you just try and build up that confidence, from those moments, of knowing you can do it. And then trying to put yourself into that position more and more, to hopefully get over the line again."
We have already had one of the five golfing major's in the women's game, this year, and it was won by Jennifer Kupcho, her singles rival from that winning Sunday at the Solheim Cup. With Kupcho bagging her first major, that still leaves four up for grabs.
"Yeah," Maguire reflects, "there are some iconic venues we're playing on. We're going to Congressional, where Rory won his US Open, and at Muirfield for The Women's Open. I haven't been to Muirfield yet, so I'm looking forward to playing there.
"And obviously the Evian [Championship], I shot a 61 on the Sunday, there. I'd take another 61 there again! With the majors, they are generally played at the toughest golf courses with the toughest set-ups. They are the ones you prepare so much for, really. You wouldn't say no to any of them, really. You're just trying to put yourself into contention, heading into the weekends, for as many of them as possible."
Life in Florida
The Sunshine State is where Leona Maguire calls home for long stretches of the year. Male golfers like Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy and many more have based themselves in Florida, too. It is a good launchpad for mainland America, as well as Europe.
"It's busy!" says Maguire. "We started off the season in Florida, then we went to Singapore and Thailand, then we're back on the West Coast for a couple of weeks. We have two weeks in L.A, then I'll get to go home.
"Even though I spend a lot of time in the US, I still always enjoy coming home. I'm looking forward to getting back again. When you sit down to plan out the season, it's very easy to want to play in everything, especially when you are playing well and thinking you can win every tournament.
"But you have to tell yourself to pump the brakes a little, and look for those breaks in the schedule, so you can re-set and go again. It will be nice to get home again, to sleep in my own bed for a few nights in a row, and maybe have a few of mam's dinners as well."
With so much travelling involved with her job, the 27-year-old goes through a lot of books, and is always on the look-out for Netflix recommendations.
"People have been at me to watch Drive to Survive. I'm about four episodes into that... it's not something I've ever paid attention to, but it's enjoyable to watch. I know there's a men's PGA version coming up on Netflix. You never know, in a few years we might have an LPGA version too."
During our chat, I fill Leona Maguire in on the recent St Patrick's Day parade she missed in her home-town of Ballyconnell. "Plenty of trucks and tractors, I bet!" she jokes.
Getting back home is still that life-saver that Maguire needs, and thrives off for weeks when she is back on tour.
"That's the great thing about being part of a small, local community - everyone knows everybody anyway. You can get chatting to anybody - it doesn't matter whether you're a teacher, a nurse, a doctor. Everybody wants to know what everyone is doing anyway!
"The nice thing for me, with the Solheim Cup, is that granny got to ride around in the parade in the town. Granny was there in the front of the car, waving at everyone and seeing people that, with Covid, she hadn't got to see in a while. People were calling to her house to see her, ringing her and sending her cards. She got to enjoy it just as much as me, which was fantastic for her.
"And mam and dad had people calling to the house, as well. It's nice when more than just me can enjoy it... and knowing that people in the local area are enjoying it as well."
When we talk golf, and Irish golf, Maguire is completely up to speed with how all the leading Irish stars are going. She will often compete in LPGA events, and hang out, with Stephanie Meadow but she keeps a close eye on how the likes of Harrington, Lowry, Power, McDowell, McIlroy [and the rest!] are going.
"I'd have talked with them all, over the years," she says. "Graeme McDowell lives down in Florida, here, so I'd see a fair bit of him.
"When the lads are doing well, I'm sending them messages, and they're doing the same when I'm going well. There's great camaraderie within Irish athletes. It doesn't matter the sport, you like to see your own people doing well. So I was cheering on Shane and Rory at the Masters, last week, and Shane again [at the RBC Heritage] at the weekend.
"Irish golf is in about a strong a place as it has been for a while, so it will be a race to see which one can win next. Hopefully now we'll get a major in the next couple of years."