Sunday 21 January 2018

Maguire bides time to stay at top of the tree

Leona Maguire of Ireland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leona Maguire of Ireland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Barry Lennon

Leona Maguire taught younger brother Odhran a lesson when she returned to Cavan from Duke University for Christmas.

Although it was on Slieve Russell's fairways, not in the classroom.

Leona Maguire has consulted Paul McGinley about going pro since the Rio Olympics. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leona Maguire has consulted Paul McGinley about going pro since the Rio Olympics. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

While the world amateur No 1, and her twin sister Lisa, have honed their skills at the prestigious North Carolina college, their 16-year-old sibling has improved his own game.

"There'll be a match or two to see who's better and see if he can out-drive us over the Christmas break," Leona said before her return. "It'll be friendly but there'll definitely be a competitive aspect.

"He's seen what Lisa and I've done over the past few years and seen the opportunities that we've had. He's kind of eager to get a piece of that, to travel the world and get to college in the States."

Odhran, who plays off scratch, has already enjoyed success with Ireland's U-16 team earlier this year, winning five out of six points in their Quadrangle International win over England.

His big sister continues to inspire, as Leona's time as world amateur No 1 entered its 126th week over the New Year. Her reign at the top of the world rankings looks set to surpass the record (130 weeks) after choosing to remain amateur to finish her final year of psychology - a course which she enjoys.

"Psychology takes in a wide range from forensic, clinical, developmental and some sports psychology. I'm also taking a business and marketing component as well and I've preferred that," she said.

"Psychology is a big part of any sport and golf in particular. I probably don't do it on purpose but there's things I've learned that now I do instinctively, and that help me along the way."

Using this mental strength, the 23-year-old secured her place on the developmental Symetra Tour at the second qualifying tournament in October.Unlike a full LPGA card, this allows her to defer going pro until college ends in May and its golf season culminates in the NCAA Championships.

"It's basically our All-Ireland. There'll be coverage of it on the golf channel all that week. It's getting a bigger and bigger profile," said the Ladies' British amateur champion.

Living a five-minute walk from Duke's own 18-hole course with sister Lisa, who has unrivalled knowledge of her game, has undoubtedly helped.

Leona, who holds the college's lowest stroke average (71.1), claimed two titles this season, and her ninth overall, for the college the same month she earned Symetra status.

Had she chosen to earn her LPGA card this year she would have had to go pro immediately, leaving the benefits of college behind - which didn't make sense to the teachers' daughter.

"Obviously the goal is to get on the LPGA but who knows what might happen. It's great to have the degree in my back pocket whenever I need it," she surmised

Her dominance of the amateur game started just after the Rio Olympics where she gained valuable advice under the watchful eye of Ireland captain Paul McGinley - and she still seeks his opinion.

"About a year from Rio when I was looking like I had a chance to qualify, Paul reached out and kept in contact leading up to Rio and then I had met him a couple of times," she recalled

"Then, in advance of the Games, he'd be out there and he sent me information on the course and what to expect. When I was out there he was good.

"Paul has been a great help to me any time I've picked up the phone and given him a call seeking advice about what to do about going professional."

Rio also gave Maguire the opportunity to spend time with Seamus Power and Stephanie Meadow who have both taken the professional plunge after studying in the States.

Experience

"To have Pádraig (Harrington) and Seamus there was a great experience. The men's game is different. In the ladies' game we're not playing for multi-million purses every week. There's not as much flying around the world in private jets," she said.

"Stephanie is really the only Irish (female) golfer in the professional ranks right now. It'll be great to have someone Irish on Tour so I'm not the only one."

Though purses are smaller than the men's game, the top female professionals' earnings aren't insignificant - Sei Young Kim, the current longest-reigning amateur No 1, won more than $1.2m (€1m) over the last year after going pro.

While Leona looks to sunny Florida as a potential base for her pro career, where she can expect to spend 35 weeks on the road, and where the grass is not always greener.

"The life of a professional golfer is not always as glamorous as maybe people think it is. There's definitely a lot of living out of a suitcase and, yeah, there's a lot of bills to be paid," she said.

"It's not like a soccer player where your wages are guaranteed for the week. You have got to finish high up the leaderboard to make money or else have some really good sponsors backing you along the way."

Until she gets further backing, being world amateur No 1 is a good foundation.

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