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For 2021 breakout golf star Leona Maguire, the sky is the limit

Leona Maguire put on a show for Team Europe during the Solheim Cup in September. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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.