It was as inevitable as night following day that Leona Maguire would win on the LPGA tour – at least that’s how it seemed to most followers of women’s golf. Nothing is ever a given, however and Leona admitted her overriding emotion was one of relief when she claimed the LPGA Drive On Championship at Fort Myers, Florida, last Saturday.
It was a great Saturday from an Irish point of view. Firstly, a resounding win over Wales in the Six Nations with the Aviva stadium brought back to full life and voice after what has seemed like an interminable time of pandemic and restrictions. No nail biting, last minute, desperate play for a change – rather an assured victory that was there to be savoured.
Fast forward a few hours and the same could be said of Leona’s win. Three ahead with five to play the only attempt to exert any pressure on the Irishwoman came from Lexi Thompson who picked up six shots in seven holes. Maguire was fearless, however, and had her own burst of birdies around the turn – four in five holes. A purposeful stride, exceptional iron play and confidence borne of having won at every level in the game were enough to see her win by three and ascend to a career high ranking of 20th in the world. Only one European, Anna Nordqvist, is ahead of her.
Leona has long been on the radar of all golfers and golf fans in Ireland. After a stellar amateur career in which she hoovered up Irish, British and European titles, she headed to Duke University, along with her twin Lisa, to play college golf in the States. She held the No 1 world amateur ranking for a record 135 weeks before turning pro and last year recorded two runners-up places, as well as three other top tens in her rookie season on the LPGA.
And then came the Solheim Cup and recognition that spread well beyond the golfing family. The only player to play in all five matches, and unbeaten to boot, Leona spearheaded what was only Europe’s second victory on American soil. That seemed to furnish her with the deep-down knowledge that winning on the toughest tour was certainly within her grasp and it was only a matter of when. The last piece of the jigsaw was the patience to bide her time, not forcing things and waiting for the right opportunity. She has now checked off a very important item on her to-do list. Next must surely be a major.Leona created history last weekend in becoming the first Irishwoman to win on the LPGA, just as the redoubtable Phil Garvey created history by being the first Irish female golfer to turn pro, in 1964. Phil had long been courted to join the professional ranks by Fred Corcoran who was a pivotal figure in promoting the LPGA from its inception in 1950. He was the Mark McCormack of the sports world before McCormack had been heard of and he guided and mentored the thirteen original founding members of the LPGA. To say he was influential would be an understatement.
Phil agonised over her decision, finally turning professional in 1964, but being very much a home bird she decided to stay in Ireland and signed a club deal with John Letters. She was the first woman to have a weekly instruction article with a newspaper and she played numerous exhibitions around the country. Her reluctance to go Stateside brought into sharp focus how it simply was not sustainable to be a female professional golfer in Ireland at the time and she regained her amateur status in 1968.
This is one of my favourite pictures of Phil and comes from one of my favourite golf books, Ivan Morris’ “A History of Women’s Golf in Ireland”, written to mark the 125th anniversary of the Irish Ladies’ Golf Union. It’s reproduced here with Ivan’s kind permission.
Following trailblazer Phil, Gwen Brandom was the second Irish female golfer to turn professional and she launched her career in America in 1969. That same year Gwen finished 38th in one of the majors, the LPGA Championship, won by Betsy Rawls, thus becoming the first Irish woman golfer to complete all four rounds in a professional major tournament. But, once again, home shores called loudly and Gwen, too, returned to Ireland and a few years later was reinstated as an amateur.
These two exceptional women started a journey for many who followed. From 1986 onwards a small trickle of players from the Emerald Isle began to join the relatively newly formed Ladies’ European Tour and in the fullness of time there were scores of young ambitious women heading to America on college golf scholarships. Many turned pro and joined the LET but the most talented stayed in America to work their way on to the toughest tour in the world. That was the path chosen by Leona and her high profile will be a tremendous inspiration to all youngsters from her home country. At last we have a woman whose golfing talent may enable her to match the wonderful exploits of our men players over the years.
A double Olympian, the 27-year old from Cavan said her victory was “17 years in the making”. Well, it wasn’t 17 years for her country – it was 58 years. Right from that moment in 1964 when Phil Garvey made history by signing on the dotted line to become Ireland’s first female professional. Since then events have been unfolding and moving towards last Saturday’s crowning moment.
What a moment to savour! What a joy! And wasn’t it well worth the wait?