Saturday 20 January 2018

Golden wonder

Leona Maguire returned to Number One in the world amateur rankings yesterday, but her ambitions go far beyond the amateur game and she plans to turn professional after going for Olympic gold in Rio this summer

Leona wants a gold medal and a career as a professional Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Leona wants a gold medal and a career as a professional Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Brian Keogh

She's been swinging a club alongside twin sister Lisa since she was just a tot, but the time has now come for Leona Maguire to take her game to the next level and conquer the LPGA Tour.

The 21-year old from Ballyconnell in Co. Cavan has spent the last few seasons trying to get her golf to a level where she could hope to compete with the best players in the world.

Leona Maguire: There is no point in going out there just to take part. I am going out to give it my very best and finish as high up as I possibly can' Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Leona Maguire: There is no point in going out there just to take part. I am going out to give it my very best and finish as high up as I possibly can' Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

And after caressing the Top 10 in last week's Ricoh Women's British Open and eventually finishing as the leading amateur in a share of 25th, the first thing she did when she got up on Monday was to immediately enter next October's LPGA Tour Qualifying School.

Whether she wins her LPGA Tour card straight away or finds herself starting on the second tier Symetra Tour, the pride of Slieve Russell will be playing for US dollars next season.

Before all that she heads to Rio de Janeiro next week, not just to wear the Olympic uniform, but to compete for gold.

Buoyed by her brilliant performance alongside the pros at Woburn last weekend, she said: "It was nice to have an event like last week's so close to the Olympics. All the people who are going to Rio were there last week so it was nice to get that trial run on that stage a couple of weeks beforehand, so I know what I need to work on.

"Last week gave me a taste of what it was like to be up there with the best of them. So I am not just going out there to compete.

"There is no point in going out there just to take part. I am going out to give it my very best and finish as high up as I possibly can.

"It'll be a great experience, but I am going out to treat it like a tour event and to finish as high as possible. To win an Olympic medal would be an unbelievable honour. It's a very small and special club to be a part of and it would be fantastic."

Leona's performance in the British Open was such a plus - the highlight was a third round 68 that left her tied for 10th with a round to go - that she made up her mind to try for her tour card later this year.

"It was a great week. Going in the goal was to make the cut and once I did that I was just trying to go as low as I could on the weekend," she explained.

"I played really well on Saturday and shot a good score and would have liked to have finished a bit better, but the scoring was a lot trickier on Sunday.

"They tucked away at lot more pins, but that's what you expect at a major championship.

"You see where you are in a major and my game is not as far away as I thought I was. I just need to fine-tune a few things. The majors just reinforce the importance of having a good short game.

"There are a lot of big hitters out there, but whoever holes the most putts, I think, should come out on top again and again."

There has been speculation for some time about when she will turn professional, but her mind is now all but made up to take the plunge this autumn and she has entered Stage II of the LPGA Q School.

"I have entered as an amateur and we will see what happens in the next few weeks and months and take it from there," she said of her decision to sign up for Q-School on Monday.

"More than likely I will turn professional. I've gotten a taste of what it is like, playing in tour events over the last few months and years. And that's what I want to be doing.

"The past few seasons have been about getting to that point so I am going to be as prepared as I possibly can to finish as high as possible at tour school.

"Hopefully that will be the stepping stone to bigger and better things.

"I have been talking to Stephanie Meadow a little bit and it will be good to catch up with her in Rio and see what she says.

"She's been out there as a pro now for the last two years and knows what's involved. She can tell me what life on tour entails and I will see what I need to learn."

A brilliant iron player, Leona is not obsessed with adding length, but focussing instead on sharpening up her short game.

"I was hitting my irons really well at Woburn, though I could have taken a bit more advantage of the par fives," she said.

"I played the other holes really well because my irons were really good and I was hitting the ball really well off the tee. And I putted nicely.

"But my pitching probably wasn't good enough and I didn't take advantage of my chances on the par fives when I wasn't getting it there in two.

"Off the tee I am getting it out there 260-265 yards at the moment and I probably need to get a little bit more yardage.

"It is not the most important aspect of the game for me right now, but I'll definitely hit the gym a little more this winter.

"In Woburn last week, the long hitters ended up taking the driver out of their bag so it wasn't necessarily an advantage to be super long.

"Okay, if you can hit the par-fives in two, it makes life a lot easier. But there was more of a premium on accuracy."

Leona had sister Lisa on the bag in Woburn as a trial run for Rio and while top men like Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry pulled out over the Zika virus, the Co. Cavan girl said she'd give her right arm to go for gold.

"We were all presented with the same information and I was always going to go," she said.

"If I thought the health risks were substantial enough and were going to have a negative impact, I wouldn't have sacrificed that.

"But the risks are very, very minimal. And as I said before, representing your country at the Olympics is worth that minimal risk."

The likes of McIlroy and Pádraig Harrington have been role models for men's golf and Leona would be proud to be a pathfinder for the next generation of Irish women golfers.

"All we can do is work hard and set as good an example for all the young girls growing up," she said.

"It was really nice to see all the young girls coming out to watch at the Curtis Cup and following all the days.

"The ILGU and the CGI have been doing a great job of trying to grow the game. There are a lot more girls playing now than when I started 10 years ago. So that's great to see.

"That's the good thing with the Olympics. It is going to give golf a bigger platform and a bigger stage and there will be lots of kids watching who will aspire to win a gold medal. It can't help but grow the game."

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