Typically in a world-class athlete’s career there’s a moment when they go from a “promising” or “can’t-miss” prospect to arrived.

For golfer Leona Maguire, a formerly renowned amateur player and the runner-up for LPGA Rookie of the Year in 2021, that moment came during September’s Solheim Cup.

Playing for the first time in the biennial Europe vs. USA team event, Maguire was the star of the show, going 4-0-1 in five matches to lead Team Europe to a 15-13 win. Just as the Ryder Cup on the men’s side reaches a deeper-than-usual golf audience because of the patriotism, emotion and pressure that come with such a format, this year’s Solheim Cup had wide-ranging television coverage and an on-site attendance of 130,000 over three days.

Rather than shrink under such a spotlight, Maguire shone. “I’d played in two junior Solheims and attended two real ones, but there was nothing like playing in it,” the just-turned 27-year-old says when we catch up with her in December. “It was like being at a football game. You don’t get that atmosphere at many golf events. It was really cool and very loud. I really enjoy being part of a team, and I had great teammates who gave me tips and advice, including Mel [Reid] on that first morning. Same with our captains. They made the rookies feel so comfortable, even if that big crowd wasn’t supporting us.”

The high-profile nature of the event and Maguire’s play in it put a spotlight on a player who’d mostly been known to fans as an amateur, if at all.

“The attention increased a lot after Solheim,” says Maguire’s manager, twin sister and fellow elite golfer, Lisa. “All of her social media platforms grew and many of the comments were about, ‘I didn’t realize how good she was.’ I knew from amateur and college, but Solheim let her shine on a bigger stage.”

Leona and Lisa grew up with schoolteacher parents in the small town of Ballyconnell in County Cavan, Ireland. Leona describes it as a “pretty rural, small town with one stoplight, middle of the countryside.”

Ireland may not be known for producing pro golfers, but it’s a land rich in courses and athletes of many disciplines.

Leona and Lisa did “every sport,” Leona recalls. Gaelic football, soccer, swimming. Swimming was their favorite and best until Lisa broke her elbow when the girls were 9. “Part of the rehab the specialist suggested was ‘racket sports,’” remembers Leona. “But there weren’t many places to play those, and dad played golf and figured golf was better than tennis. There was a course nearby and, bit by bit, we kept going out there. I enjoyed the fresh air and that every round something new could happen. Plus, Lisa was doing it and so I wanted to.”

Both sisters got good quickly, entering local and then European tournaments when they were 10. By the fall of 2006, Lisa finished first and Leona third in the U-12 World Golf Championship in North Carolina. They were officially on the amateur golf radar.

Leona and Lisa Maguire first started playing golf when they were 9 years old. (Courtesy of Lisa Maguire)

At 14, the sisters played for Team Europe in the Junior Solheim Cup outside Chicago, which is when they started receiving interest from American college coaches. “We knew what college sports were, but not to the degree they are in the States. They’re not as serious in Ireland,” Leona says. American colleges started sending the sisters informational packets in 2015, and as they kept improving on the course, their options grew.

“We were weighing school in Ireland, turning pro or going to college in America,” Leona says. “College seemed like the best bet to reach [the LPGA]. Coach [Dan] Brooks had been one of the first to be in touch with us. The benefit of going to Duke was its mix of academics and athletics. We were surrounded by people preparing for the NBA, Olympic athletes, groundbreaking science and engineering, people excelling at whatever they’re doing. That environment excited us.”

Off to Duke it was, and the sisters were sensational. As a freshman in 2015, Leona won three individual tournaments throughout the season (and helped Duke win team events) en route to being named Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year by both the ACC and Women’s Golf Coaches Association. She also won the Annika Award as the best college women’s golfer in 2015. For good measure, Leona was named to the ACC’s All-Academic Team.

Leona finished her career at Duke as a two-time National Player of the Year and a four-time All-American. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The amateur-to-pro transition in golf, for both men and women, is a lot like men’s basketball in terms of when athletes do it. Turning pro before you finish college is entirely accepted and almost normal. Sure enough, with Leona having reached literally the peak of her sport as a freshman, and men’s basketball classmates Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow leaving Durham in droves after winning the 2015 national championship, she was faced with a similar decision.

“After my freshman year, when I won the ACC, second in nationals, National Freshman of the Year, National Player of the Year, I was asked if I was coming back,” Leona recalls. “There were opportunities to turn pro and some people said I should. But Duke is such a special place and I’d made a commitment.”

Instead of turning pro then, Leona simply turned into the most accomplished amateur golfer of the modern era. In the summer of 2015, she accepted an invitation to play in the Ladies European Tour even in Denham, England. Competing against some of the top professionals in Europe, she finished second. Then she played in The Evian Championship against the greatest golfers in the world, and made the cut. She was the top amateur in the event and the first Irishwoman ever to make the cut in any major. Had she been allowed to accept the prize money for those two events, Leona would have taken home more than $75,000. She “settled” for being named Amateur Golfer of the Year and being the top-ranked amateur on the planet, a place she’d hold for a record 135 weeks, surpassing previous record-holder Lydia Ko’s 131.

The to-turn-pro or not-to-turn-pro debate continued annually throughout Leona’s time in Durham (and Lisa’s, as she was also excelling at Duke), but she never bit, wrapping up her undergraduate career with a second Annika Award and a place on the Academic All-American team.

As Coach Brooks said when Leona won the Annika Award in 2017, “What makes (all the honors) even more special is the type of person Leona is. She works hard, she appreciates the opportunities, and she sees the big picture — including a degree from Duke. She’s earned these accolades, and they couldn’t be going to a more appreciative student-athlete.”

On June 5, 2018, with the sisters each having graduated from Duke with Psychology majors, they did finally turn pro, signing with Niall Horan’s nascent Modest! Golf Management. Yes, that Niall Horan.

Leona made her professional debut later that week at the Shoprite LPGA Classic and played a mix of LPGA, LET and Symetra events throughout the rest of 2018. She did not do enough on the tours, or at Qualifying School, to qualify for full-time Tour membership in 2019, marking the first major bump in a career that had previously gone in only one direction.

“Missing Q School out of college was tough, but I had a good year on Symetra in 2019 and qualified for the 2020 LPGA Tour,” she says. Then, of course, the world stopped. Leona mostly hunkered down and practiced until the Tour resumed.

After the pandemic shortened and delayed the 2020 season, there was no proper Q School at the end of the year. As a result, the 2020 rookies were allowed to play as rookies in 2021, as well. “It kind of turned into an 18-month rookie year and I learned a lot,” Leona says.

Meanwhile, Lisa did not qualify at the end of 2019 and instead decided to transition to life “outside the ropes.” Modest! co-founder Mark McDonnell offered her a job as a client manager, with the idea that she could focus on her sister but also help grow the agency’s talent roster on the women’s side. “He felt my background in golf and collegiate golf would make me helpful, and it’s been very comfortable,” Lisa says. “No more scorecard pressure, not having to make a 5-footer on Friday night to play the weekend. I get to travel with Leona and support her. It was a no-brainer for me.”

Lisa has since added aspiring dentist to her resume while studying at University College Cork in Ireland, but she travels with Leona when school is not in session and manages her golf affairs from afar when she isn’t.

Our catch-up with both sisters occurs in early December, with Leona wrapping up offseason training at her homebase in Orlando and Lisa back home in County Cavan.

They will reunite with their larger family for the holidays. Leona will catch up in person with her longtime coach, Shane O’Grady, and then return to the States for the 2022 LPGA season, which conveniently kicks off in Orlando on Jan. 20.

At that point, the breakout star of 2021 will no longer be a rookie by any definition. Maguire wrapped up the 2021 season second in the ROY race, 17th in the Race to CME Globe season standings, 43rd in the Rolex overall world rankings and, of course, one heroic Solheim Cup performance.

It’s an impressive place for a golfer to be in the world’s game, even if she’s still searching for her first LPGA win.

As European Team Captain Catriona Matthew said of Leona in October: “She brought 4 1/2 points to the team, which was most important, plus a real grittiness. She’d been playing really well all year and, on form, was one of our top players going into it. I had followed her amateur career as well and knew she’d done well in the Curtis Cup, so I knew she had experience in match play. She’s one of those gritty characters that never gives up. Always a fighter.

“Hopefully the way she played at Solheim can springboard her into next year. I know she’s looking to get a win on the LPGA, and I can certainly see that in her future.”

“I’d love to build on the momentum of this year,” Leona says. “The LPGA is as strong as it’s ever been. You see what Nelly [Korda] and Jin Young [Ko] are doing. I’d love to be up there with them in contention on weekends at majors. I would also like to get a win this year.”

For all of the golf fans who fell in love with her game in 2021, the feeling is mutual.

Ben Osborne is the Head of Content at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked for FOX Sports, Bleacher Report and served as SLAM’s longest-tenured Editor-in-Chief. He has written articles for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post and books with NYU Press and Rizzoli. Follow him on Twitter @bosborne17.

Let’s get right to it: Whether you look at the small picture or the big picture, what Jonquel Jones has achieved in her career, and especially in this MVP-caliber season, is mindblowing.

We can call the “small picture” what she does on the court, where the 6-foot-6 forward combines a mix of strength, touch, determination and elite skills to average 19.4 points (on a buttery mix of post moves, fadeaways and face-up 3-pointers to the tune of 1.5 triples a game), 1.3 blocks and a WNBA-leading 11.2 rebounds per game. Jones is the unquestioned leader of this year’s powerhouse team, the Connecticut Sun, who led the league during the regular season with a 26-6 record and begin their playoff run this week in the semifinals against the Chicago Sky.

Jones compares her game most directly to former NBA MVP Kevin Durant, and he enthusiastically co-signs the match even if he’s not nearly the rebounder Jones is. While the achievements themselves may not be quite unprecedented (a few past MVPs have posted similarly impressive statistical seasons), the way Jones plays inside and out has arguably never been seen before.

The “big picture” would be where this unbelievable talent came from before unleashing herself on the WNBA: a country (The Bahamas) with a negligible history in the sport, and then a college (George Washington University) with a decent history of team success in hoops but an equally negligible history of actually producing WNBA players, let alone the best player in the league.

And what was that path? While it’s been shared over the years, it’s a story worth retelling because, MVP favorite or not, we’re talking about a player who was nowhere to be found on the WNBA’s top-selling jersey list and has a small social-media presence. It stands to reason that this undercoverage is related to fans’ lack of awareness, because once you grasp Jonquel Jones’ story … it’s impossible not to, well, like, follow and share.

“I’m so proud of her,” gushes Diane Richardson, Jones’ high school coach and temporary legal guardian. We’re chatting over the phone in mid-September, the day after Jones’ Sun whomped the Liberty 98-69. “She called me after the game like she always does to review the tape. I told her I hadn’t watched the game yet, but I’d call her once I did. So I did, and we talked about where and how she’s getting double-teamed, her positioning, stuff like that.”

This was after a 30-point win.

How’d we get here? As essential as Richardson, now the head coach at Towson University, is to most phases of Jones’ life in basketball, the story begins before high school, of course.

Jones was born in 1994 in Freeport, the second-biggest city in The Bahamas. She was a soccer lover at first, but by 12 she’d transitioned that passion to hoops. Finding the facilities, coaching and overall support for the sport lacking in The Bahamas, Jones told her mother she would go to high school in the States and play college basketball.

While that path was extremely rare, Jones was determined, and had a role model to show the way. “Coach Yo!” Jones exclaims over the phone. “She’s the one.”

Coach Yo is Yolett McPhee-McCuin, now the head coach at Ole Miss. Spurred by her father, Gladstone “Moon” McPhee, who coached many kids in The Bahamas (including Jones and the NBA’s Buddy Hield), McPhee-McCuin was the first Bahamian woman to earn a letter of intent from a Division I college. She played at and graduated from Rhode Island after spending two years at Miami-Dade Community College.

Jones learned from McPhee’s basketball path. She also knew a local, Jurelle Nairn, who had attended Riverdale Baptist High School in Maryland as an exchange student. Nairn connected the 13-year-old, high school freshman to Riverdale Baptist coach Diane Richardson and they began speaking.

“I spoke with Jonquel and her mother. She wanted to play here, but tuition was a lot. ‘You can apply,’ I told them. Mom said they couldn’t afford that,” Richardson recalls. “We just went our ways for a little, but I called her back a couple of times to check on her. You could tell she and her mom were awesome. Four or five months later, I spoke with my husband: ‘This is a great kid with a great family — can we sponsor her?’ He said yes.”

During her successful tenure at the school in Upper Marlboro, Md., Richardson and her family occasionally sponsored local kids they wanted to help attend, but never international students.

“This was before Facetime,” Richardson continues. “So I’d never looked at her or seen her play. Just talked periodically. Then she came with her parents. They spent a week at my house and got acclimated with my family. We took them downtown, went to the White House and the monuments and spent time with my family. Her mother says, ‘It was meant for me to come here and turn my child over to you.’ My husband and I were honored. She was such a great kid.”

It was September 2008 and the families agreed Jones would move in with the Richardsons, who would eventually become her legal guardians. Riverdale Baptist was a nationally ranked program that didn’t necessarily have minutes for a player as raw as Jones, so she worked on her game at her new home.

“She has a tremendous work ethic,” Richardson says. “We had a court at home and she’d be out there shooting at 5 a.m. When she came over, she was actually behind our team with her skills. We played for the national championship that first season and she was the only player not to get in. She cried in the car on the way home. I told her, ‘You’re not ready and I’m not gonna play any favorites. You need to work.’”

So she did. Jones would launch shot after shot on the Richardson’s court — including from deep. “My husband and I both played college basketball and he taught her to shoot 3s,” Richardson says. “We’d play 3s and 2s and she’d get so mad when my husband would make 3s. So she practiced them.”

Jones also kept growing, and studying the game. “[Coach Richardson] started showing me video clips of great players that I should learn from,” Jones says today. “A mix of players that would make me a better overall player: Candace Parker, Delle Donne, Hakeem Olajuwon and KD. KD was always my favorite.” (Jones’ No. 35 with the Sun is no coincidence.)

Jones’ unique origin and late start to high school playing time meant she didn’t get much college attention until very late in her high school career. She received her first college letter after 10th grade from Brown University, a school not known for its basketball program.

The experienced Richardson knew she had something special, though. “She saw the potential,” Jones remembers. “She would look at the players ranked ahead of me and say, ‘I’ve seen this girl. She’s not better than you.’ She really recognized what I could be before anyone else and put that confidence in my head.”

Eventually, the recruitniks came around. As Jones was finishing high school, she moved up to No. 17 in ESPN’s national rankings and received an offer from UNC.

Jones chose Clemson, where McPhee-McCuin was a fast-rising assistant coach. When things didn’t work out at Clemson, Jones transferred back “home,” enrolling at GW in Washington, D.C., where Richardson had become an assistant coach.

“My youngest son, Michael, was going through some things and Jonquel said, ‘I gotta come home for my little brother,’” Richardson says. “When she decided to transfer, Baylor, Louisville, everyone was calling about her. I knew there would be bigger programs for her. Her wanting to be home for Michael was touching. We lived about 45 minutes from GW, so she lived on campus but came home on weekends and holidays. And she just kept working. She was always practicing. People would say to me, ‘Every time I walk past the Smith Center, Jonquel is in there, putting up shots.’”

Lisa Cermignano is a past GW great (yours truly covered her as the Colonial’s beat writer during their Elite 8 season in 1996-97) who went on to become a successful college coach and now runs the coaching division at SIG Sports, the Maryland-based agency that represents Jones. “I’d watch her GW games and be like, ‘Holy cow!’ For the A10, she was head and shoulders above the rest,” says Cermignano, who also wore No. 35 at GW.

Despite GW’s and the Atlantic 10’s complete lack of relevance at the WNBA level, Jones showed such dominance as a scorer and rebounder that there was no doubting her pro potential. Fueled by Richardson, Jones knew it, too. She was confident she could make it to the W no matter what school she went to after Clemson. “Coach Thibault would come watch our practices and he told me I could play in the WNBA,” Jones says of the current Washington Mystics coach and 2019 WNBA champion.

Jones won A10 Player of the Year as a junior at George Washington in 2015. (G Fiume/Getty Images)

As a senior, Jones averaged 16.2 points and an NCAA-best 14.6 rebounds per game while leading GW to a 26-7 record, the A10 tournament championship and the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Sure enough, she was the sixth pick of the 2016 draft — the same number her childhood buddy, Hield, was chosen in the NBA draft of the same year. Jones was the first GW player drafted since 2009 and by far the highest ever taken.

Jones took her ever-expanding game up to Mohegan Sun, and after a so-so 2016 season for her and the team, she began an ascension in 2017 that hasn’t abated. That season she won Most Improved Player as the Sun had their first winning season (21-13) since 2012. In 2018, the Sun tweaked her usage, bringing her off the bench in half of their games as they again went 21-13. Jones promptly won Sixth Woman of the Year. The next year, the Sun rode their All-Star to a 23-11 mark and advanced to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2005, when Jones was just 11 years old.

Last year, of course, was “the Wubble.” Jones, who over the course of her pro career has become a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina and starred professionally for Russian power BC UMMC Ekaterinburg alongside the likes of Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart, sat out the shortened season. She returned to the court for the 2020-21 EuroLeague season and helped Ekaterinburg win the title.

The 2021 regular season has been a lesson in momentum, with Jones building off of her success in Russia and the Sun picking up where they left off in 2019. “There’s definitely been some continuity from 2019,” Jones says. “We had a championship-caliber team that year. But we didn’t have DB [DeWanna Bonner] in 2019. And we haven’t had Alyssa [Thomas] yet this year (though she returned the day after we spoke).”

The Sun rolled to a league-best 26-6 regular season mark, going 15-1 at home and closing the year on a 14-game winning streak. Jones was the WNBA’s Player of the Month in August and September (not to mention May) and has already been named the AP’s Player of the Year. MVP honors (with even more prestige than ours) seem sure to follow.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Cermignano gushes. “For all of my former teammates and coaches, it is very special to watch. It was so rare for someone of JJ’s caliber to come into the A10, and then to see what she’s accomplishing is beyond special. It’s close to all of us.”

“I’m so proud of her,” Richardson echoes. “And she’s still working. She just wants to get better and I think she will. Kevin Durant has reached out to her and she’s so excited about that. They’re going to work out together and that’s only going to take her to another level.”

At this point, with the personal accolades flowing in like a waterfall, Jones is more focused on what the Sun can do when they begin their title chase Tuesday night at Mohegan Sun Arena. “It’s championship or bust for us,” Jones says with literally zero hesitation. “There are no excuses. We have everything we need to do it.”

And what would a title mean to Jones?

“The world.”

Ben Osborne is the Head of Content at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked for FOX Sports, Bleacher Report and served as SLAM’s longest-tenured Editor-in-Chief. He has written articles for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post and books with NYU Press and Rizzoli. Follow him on Twitter @bosborne17.

The buzz-filled, block-long line started forming outside 594 Broadway well before noon yesterday. Lines outside stores are nothing new in SoHo, but this one felt pretty refreshing.

The store folks were waiting on is a new “pop-up museum” from Wilson that celebrates the brand’s long history in tennis as New York City readies for the US Open. And the real draw was the tennis legend who was on hand to officially open the location: the truly incomparable Billie Jean King.

Rather than relaxing in the glow of her 39(!!!) Grand Slam titles (12 singles, 16 women’s doubles and 11 mixed doubles), her massive role in the feminist movement (you’ve heard of the “Battle of the Sexes,” hopefully) and her unimpeachable status as an icon in the tennis and LGBTQ communities, the 77-year-old King is as busy as ever.

Maria-Stella Fountoulakis

King strolled into the venue waving and smiling at guests and ready to talk through Wilson’s impressive role in growing the sport of tennis, as well as discuss her just-released book, All In, an autobiography that pays special attention to her commitment to social justice. 

Merely being in the presence of such a legend is pretty awe-inspiring. In King’s case, hearing her talk at an event that would have been awesome even if she just posed for a couple of pics, it’s doubly special since everything she says is so thoughtful.

One picture in the exhibit focused on Jack Kramer, who helped make tennis a viable profession after decades of it being strictly amateur.

“I did not like being an amateur,” King said to her co-host/guide Katrina Adams as they paused at the image. “We were the best players in the world. And where was the money going, anyway? Finally, in 1968, we got pro tennis.”

In front of a picture of Serena Williams, one of the few players, men or women, to achieve more on the court than King, she looked admiringly at the image of the 23-time Grand Slam singles champ. After reflecting proudly on what Williams achieved when she won the 2017 Australian Open while 3 months pregnant, King said, “At my age, I’ve seen a lot of generations come and go. And it’s a little sad. Now it’s Serena, Federer, Nadal’s turn—they’re winding down. There’s definitely a shift.”

Maria-Stella Fountoulakis

The last photo in the first-floor exhibit space featured Federer himself, another Wilson racquet user with 20 Slam titles to his name. Here, King just nerded out on tennis, breaking down Fed’s ability to keep his head still and the way he’s gradually changed his grip on his backhand. It wasn’t terribly useful information for non-tennis experts, but hearing King speak so intently on it provided SMR-inducing pleasure just the same.

Having completed the mini-tour, King, Adams, a few members of the media and some special guests from the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program, for which former WTA pro Adams serves as the Executive Director, headed upstairs for a more intimate chat. 

As Adams told JWS of her friend and mentor, “Billie Jean has never retreated in the background of anything. She is truly a hero to men and women alike for what she stands for. She’s authentic in every way. And anyone that is out there fighting for positive advocacy for equality and inclusion, we need those people.”

Maria-Stella Fountoulakis

King, who founded the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974, only got more captivating as the conversation continued. She gave a perfect summary of the importance of Title IX and took attendees back to the early 70s when she was one of the original nine women who signed on to launch the women’s tour.

Later, King gave props to Just Women’s Sports (*smile emoji*).

“I love what you’re doing,” she said about JWS. “Even though 40 percent of professional athletes are women, we only get 4 percent of the attention. This is helping that void and get the word out, which I think is fantastic.”

Asked her thoughts on Naomi Osaka and the defending U.S. Open champ’s ongoing issues with the media, especially around press conferences, King had a lot to say.

“I haven’t had a chance to listen to her and ask that question, but I need to. I’m giving her space,” King said.

“I just want her to take care of herself, and every woman athlete, every male athlete, all athletes to take care of themselves.

“But part of your obligation as an athlete, as a professional athlete—or a performer, or in entertainment—is we have to talk to the media, because that’s part of our promotion, it’s part of our giving back for the kids, and to get people interested in our sport. They have to know who you are… how do they get to know who you are?”

King also touched on the preparation needed for the professional athlete off of the court or the field.

“I think Rookie School is really important,” she said. “You’ve gotta go through courses and you’ve got to understand what it means to be a professional athlete or entertainer. And part of that is you have to talk to the media. It’s horrible now. I’ve talked to media people. They can never get interviews with any of the players. I’m like, this is ridiculous. That’s part of their obligation. They say they have social media and their own brand, but that’s not enough. You’ve got to give to others that are helping you.”

Maria-Stella Fountoulakis

King, gesturing at the four reporters surrounding her, said, “Also, each one of you is trying to make a living. I used to sit in media conferences and, every guy—it was almost all men then—every single guy in there was just trying to make a living.

“And they were good writers! I liked reading what they had to say, even if I didn’t agree with them. We’re kind of all in this world together. So it’s not just about ‘me and my career,’ it’s about everyone. And so how can you find that balance of taking care of yourself first, and then finding ways to give back?” 

Wrapping up, King said, “I’m just not sure if we’re given enough information and understanding of what it means to be a professional athlete. I just don’t know.”

Among King’s qualities that shone throughout the event were her energy, generosity, wisdom and thoughtfulness. As Adams gave accolades for All In, King never failed to give props right back for Own the Arena, the book Adams released earlier this year. And King’s request to give the mic to the teenagers and kids in the audience to ask their thoughts and feelings about certain issues highlighted the greater mission of connecting across generations.

If King’s never-ending work to improve both sports and society at large have taught us anything, it’s that we can be sure she’ll keep going, raising others up, and making the world a better place along the way.