Tuesday 24 October 2017

Best still to come from Ireland's new superstar Leona

Maguire has shown that she is clearly the best female amateur. Photo by Richard Martin-Roberts/R&A/R&A via Getty Images
Maguire has shown that she is clearly the best female amateur. Photo by Richard Martin-Roberts/R&A/R&A via Getty Images

Brian Keogh

It's taken a while but, following her historic Ladies' British Amateur Open Championship victory in Wales on Saturday, Ireland is waking up to the fact that we have a potential superstar in Leona Maguire.

The 22-year-old from Ballyconnell in Co Cavan begins her 99th week as the world amateur No 1 this week and should she remain there until she completes her psychology degree at Duke University in North Carolina next May, it's more than likely that she will smash Lydia Ko's record of 130 weeks as the game's best amateur.

New Zealander Ko, who has since gone on to win 19 times as a professional, including two Majors, played her role in Maguire's return to the world No 1 spot after being replaced at the top for 12 weeks by Hannah O'Sullivan - her future team mate at Duke next season - just last summer.

After playing alongside Ko in golf's return to the Olympic Games at Rio de Janiero, Leona saw what she needs to improve before she takes up a string of invitations to play on the LPGA Tour as a professional.

"The big focus has been on my putting for the last few months," she said, recalling how impressed she was by Ko's short game and course management when they played together in Rio.

"I could see she didn't hit the ball that much further than me but from 100 yards and in she was beside the pin every time and then in the hole," 260-yard hitter Leona said recently. "That's the difference.

"A lot of my practice is on wedges and putting now, playing little games against my sister Lisa and my team-mates and spending more time on the course trying to get a bit better in that area."

Maguire was expected to turn professional at the end of last year but opted instead to withdraw from the LPGA Tour's Final Q-School and remain at Duke to complete her studies.

It's proven to be a wise move and after taking her tally of collegiate wins to seven with three victories this year, she captured the three big season-ending awards - the GolfStat Cup for her stroke average of 70.13, (the lowest since Lorena Ochoa in 2001-'02), the Women's Collegiate Golf Coaches' Award and the Annika Award presented to the top female US collegiate golfer.

In capturing all three awards for the second time in three years, Maguire (right) has shown that she is clearly the best female amateur to emerge since Ko dominated from 2011 to 2013. US collegiate golf is of such a high standard that the leading players immediately triumph on the LPGA Tour.

But it has taken a win closer to home to bring the Slieve Russell star the plaudits she deserves.

In beating Spain's Ainhoa Olarra 3 and 2 in the final on Saturday, Maguire became just the eighth Irish woman to capture that title since May Hezlet won the first of her three crowns in 1899.

"It doesn't really get much bigger," she said.

"There was a world-class field here and some great golf played. I'm just delighted to come out on top.

"These are the sort of days you practise for. These are the days you're out in early mornings in cold weather for, to make days like today very much worthwhile.

"It's a lot of practice and hard work. I've been very, very fortunate to have a lot of people help me out along the way.

"My mam and dad have obviously been great, and it was great to have Lisa on my bag this week and my coach Shane O'Grady.

Ready

"I've been just trying to get my game to the point where it's ready to go on tour.

"My irons have been really good, I've been hitting the ball really well, and thankfully this week I holed a few more putts than usual which really made the difference."

Leona's goal is to win the NCAA individual title next year and with O'Sullivan joining Duke, the team title also looks to be well within their compass.

But we may also see her challenge the professionals as he plans to play three professional Majors this year.

Scheduled to play US Women's Open at Trump National Bedminster from July 13-16 and the following week's LPGA Tour's Marathon Classic, she will also play in the RICOH Women's British Open at Kingsbarns from August 3-6.

After that it's back to college with Duke for a month before returning to Europe for another Major appearance as an amateur in the Evian Championship from September 14-17.

Winner of the Mark H McCormack medal awarded to the leading player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking after the last 'elite' event of the season in 2015 and 2016, she's on course to become the second player since Ko to win it three years running.

With that kind of pedigree, it's clear that Irish women's golf now has it's own Rory McIlroy. The best, it would appear, is yet to come.

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