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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.

Serena Williams is ‘super interested’ in owning a WNBA team

Serena Williams speaks on stage during keynote conversation at 2019 conference in San Jose, California
The tennis icon is all in on women's sports — and the WNBA is right on her heels. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/WireImage via Getty Images)

Could Serena Williams co-own a WNBA team in the near future? 

Speaking with CNN on Monday, Williams expressed her interest in that potential — as well as the mounting enthusiasm for women’s sports around the world. 

"I think women’s sport is having a moment that it should have always had," Williams said. "I feel like tennis has had its moment. It’s international, and it’s huge, and it’s always gonna be there.

"Now it’s time to lift up other sports — women’s soccer, women’s basketball — there’s so many other sports that women do so great, let’s put it on that platform. Women’s basketball is getting there, and it’s arrived."

When asked if she had any interest in adding a WNBA team to her roster of ownership stakes, the tennis great welcomed the idea. "I absolutely would be," Williams said. "With the right market, I would definitely be super interested in that."

"There is no risk — women’s sport is exciting," Williams added, citing the 2024 NCAA women's tournament's record-breaking viewership as evidence. "People are realizing that it is exciting to watch, so it's an overly safe bet."

Williams may not need to wait long to act on that bet. On Monday, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said that she is "pretty confident" the league will expand to 16 teams — up from its current 12 — by 2028. 

The goal, she said, is to reach 14 by 2026. Oakland's Golden State is already on track to launch the league's 13th team in 2025. The move will mark the WNBA's first new franchise since the Atlanta Dream debuted in 2008.

"It's complex because you need the arena and practice facility and player housing and all the things," Engelbert said at a press conference before Monday's WNBA draft. "You need committed long-term ownership groups, and so the nice thing is we're getting a lot of calls."

Engelbert went on to name a few of the cities behind those calls, saying that the league continues to engage in discussions with Philadelphia, Toronto, Portland, Denver, and Nashville, as well as South Florida.

"These can either take a very long time to negotiate or it can happen pretty quickly if you find the right ownership group with the right arena situation," Engelbert added.

The Commissioner's 16 team goal is not only good news for WNBA fans, it's great news for current and future WNBA players. At 12 teams with just 12 roster spots each, the league is held to a total of 144 players for any given season. An abundance of fresh talent coming up through the NCAA ranks has put pressure on the organization to make room for more worthy competitors, and four additional teams might be just the ticket.

Hellen Obiri claims back-to-back Boston Marathon wins

Hellen Obiri, winner of the women's division of the Boston Marathon, poses with the Boston Marathon trophy
Hellen Obiri, winner of the 2024 Boston Marathon's women's division, poses with her trophy. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri won the 128th Boston Marathon on Monday, becoming the first woman to claim back-to-back titles since 2005.

She clocked a total time of 2 hours, 27 minutes, and 37 seconds in a women's division that race organizers described as "historically fast."

"Defending the title was not easy," Obiri said. "Since Boston started, it's only six women [that have repeated]. If you want to be one of them, you have to work extra hard. And I'm so happy because I'm now one of them — I'm now in the history books."

A two-time Olympic silver medalist and two-time 5000m world champion, Obiri is a clear favorite in this summer’s Paris Olympics.

“Last year I was pretty familiar to the marathon, but this year my training was perfect — we trusted everything we were doing,” Obiri said. “When we won last year, of course I was saying I’m going to win this one. Winning is like love. It’s something precious to me.”

Though, she wasn’t without a challenge. Fellow Kenyan Sharon Lokedi finished a mere eight seconds behind Obiri. Edna Kiplagat, who won the 2017 Boston Marathon, completed the podium sweep for Kenya with a third place finish.

Emma Bates, the race's top American finisher, came in 12th.

Obiri wasn't alone in making Boston Marathon history this year. The repeat champ walked away with $150,000 in total prize money allocated from a purse that topped $1 million for the first time ever. 

College rivals Angel Reese, Kamilla Cardoso drafted to the Chicago Sky

Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso competing at the NCAA SEC Conference Tournament Championship
Once rivals, Angel Reese and Kamilla Cardoso are now teammates. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

The Chicago Sky made a splash in Monday night’s WNBA draft, taking Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese in the first round. 

South Carolina’s Cardoso, who was the 2024 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, went third to the Sky. The day before, the team had swapped picks with the Minnesota Lynx to land the No. 7 pick as well, which they used on Reese, the 2023 Final Four MOP.

Now, the two will team up in Chicago after battling each other in both college and high school

"She’s a great player, and I’m a great player. Nobody's going to get no rebounds on us," Cardoso joked afterwards, while Reese expressed excitement about playing under new Sky head coach Teresa Weatherspoon.

"Being able to be a Black woman and as a head coach, and everything she's done at the NBA level, I just knew everything they were bringing to the table," Reese said of the Sky. "Player development is something that I was looking for and they looked for in me. I'm super excited for this move."

Former NBA star and Chicago Sky co-owner Dwayne Wade welcomed the pair to Chicago.

“The foundation is set,” he wrote.

The Sky have entered re-building mode after winning a WNBA title in 2021. This offseason, they traded franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper to the Phoenix Mercury for a package that included the No. 3 picked used on Cardoso.

Now, Cardoso and Reese will be looking to jump-start the team's return to contention.

Watch: Iowa star Kate Martin’s draft moment goes viral

Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert after being drafted by the Las Vegas Aces during the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York
2nd-round pick Kate Martin poses with Cathy Engelbert Commissioner of the WNBA at the 2024 draft. (Photo by Catalina Fragoso/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Iowa captain Kate Martin was in the audience during Monday night’s draft when she was selected 18th overall by the Las Vegas Aces. 

The moment quickly went viral, as Martin was in the crowd to support superstar teammate Caitlin Clark going No. 1 overall, and was not one of the 14 players invited to the draft.

"To be honest, I don't think I'd have the type of career if I don't have a teammate like Kate," Clark said about Martin leading up to the 2024 national championship game. "She's been one that has had my back. She holds me accountable. I hold her accountable. But I think at the same time, me and Kate are wired so similarly that we get each other on a different level."

Martin being drafted marks the first time that Iowa has had two players selected in the same WNBA draft since 1998.

“She's one of the best leaders I've been around," Clark said. "She wants the best for her teammates. She's one of the most selfless people."

Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Monday that she is “so proud” of her player, “because her dreams came true.”

"She has been such a big part of our program over the last six years,” she said. “Her efforts did not go unnoticed by her peers. I wish Kate all the success with this next step.”

Martin said afterward that she’s “excited for the opportunity” and to showcase her “really good” work ethic. Helping Iowa to back-to-back NCAA title games, Martin finished her college career with 1,299 points, 756 rebounds and 473 assists.

“There are a lot of emotions right now,” Martin said in an interview on ESPN. “I’m really happy to be here. I was here to support Caitlin, but I was hoping to hear my name called. All I wanted was an opportunity and I got it. I’m really excited.”

While Martin was watching from the crowd, her family was watching from back home.

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