Sixteen years ago I ignored WC Fields’s advice against performing with children and left my already fragile golfing ego in smithereens.
It happened on The K Club’s second course, the Smurfit, in August 2005. I invited 10-year-old twins Lisa and Leona Maguire to play 18 holes for a Sunday newspaper piece about two girls making a name for themselves just a year after taking up the game.
They’d reduced their handicaps by a combined 44 shots, Lisa plummeting from 36 to 13 and Leona to 15 as they started a gargantuan trophy collection by mercilessly hammering this humble hack with a display of eye-watering, short-game skills.
Fast forward to today and Leona has outstripped Lisa, now a member of Leona’s management team, and established herself alongside Stephanie Meadow on the LPGA Tour as the world No 96, and a serious candidate to become the first Irish woman to play in the Solheim Cup.
That no player from the Emerald Isle has graced the biennial match pitting Europe against the United States beggars belief. Then again, anyone familiar with the difficult history of ladies’ professional golf in Europe, Ireland’s proud amateur tradition and the decidedly unappetising prospect of professional golf for women, and it is perhaps understandable few were tempted to turn pro.
It was 1969 before Ireland had its second female professional in Gwen Brandom (née Farrell). She followed Philomena Garvey’s brief foray into the paid ranks by becoming the first Irish player to compete on the LPGA Tour and in a women’s major, finishing tied 38th in the 1969 LPGA Championship.
That it would be another 43 years before Galway-born Alison Walshe – who since has become an American citizen – would play in the same major says it all.
It was not until Maureen Madill, a graduate of Lamar University in Texas, racked up a series of runner-up finishes on the fledgling Ladies European Tour in the 1980s that Ireland had a female presence between the ropes.
Madill was exceptional because she had the mental tools to survive on the road at a time when many of Ireland’s leading amateurs were unlikely to be enticed by what was a precarious existence.
“People had good jobs, they didn’t want to turn pro,” Madill said, recalling that Leona Maguire’s play-off defeat as an amateur to Beth Allen in the 2015 ISPS Handa Ladies European Masters was the first runner-up finish on the LET by an Irish player since her handful of close calls.
“Many of these women had other strings to their bow and very good brains. The person I aspired to be like when I was growing up was (nine-time Curtis Cup player) Mary McKenna but it was the wrong time for Mary to turn pro. She had a great job in the bank and played as much golf as she wanted. She had the perfect life.”
"We didn't have a big Irish (woman) tour pro to look up to and had to look up to the men or other sports.”
It’s only since Meadow moved to the US with her family as a 13-year-old to work under Hank Haney and eventually join the LPGA Tour that becoming a successful tour player has suddenly turned into a reality for a generation of Irish women.
Previous amateur stars such as Suzanne O’Brien (née Fanagan), Hazel Kavanagh, Claire Coughlan or Danielle McVeigh, were cast adrift on the Ladies European Tour with little support or knowledge.
“You had to do it on your own,” Kavanagh said.
Marketing women’s sport has become a major undertaking in Ireland in recent years. The 20x20 campaign, designed to generate 20 percent more media coverage, 20 percent more female participation and 20 percent more attendance at women’s events by 2020, found two stars in Meadow and Maguire.
The campaign’s slogan was, “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it,” and having role models such as Meadow and Maguire has been huge for Irish women’s golf. No wonder Northern Ireland’s Olivia Mehaffey will take the plunge into professional golf soon, with fellow amateurs such as UCLA star Annabel Wilson and Wake Forest standout Lauren Walsh waiting in the wings.
Maguire deserves huge credit for breaking through on her own given she lacked a female role model. She rose to No 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking at Duke University before graduating from the Symetra Tour to the LPGA, where she recently finished second in the Lotte Championship in Hawaii.
“For myself and Lisa, we looked up to Pádraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke when we were growing up and got to meet them a few times,” Maguire said.
“We got to listen to them and hear them talk and give advice. Annika (Sörenstam) was there but when looking for other female role models we had to look to other sports almost – people like (professional boxer and footballer) Katie Taylor and Sonia O’Sullivan (track and field).
“Venus and Serena Williams were inspirational for us, given that we are sisters in the same sport. So, growing up we looked more to the men. A bit like the 20x20 campaign, we didn't have a big Irish (woman) tour pro to look up to and had to look up to the men or other sports.”
Much credit goes to the Irish Ladies Golf Union – now merged with the Golfing Union of Ireland to form Golf Ireland – and former chief executive officer Sinead Heraty and ex-high performance manager David Kearney.
“I think Leona deserves most of the credit if you are doing a legacy piece on why Irish women’s golf is so strong,” said Kearney, who with the support of Heraty transformed the way Ireland’s top players were coached. They created a bespoke High Performance programme that emphasised individuality while providing players with the tools to improve strength and conditioning, psychology, short game, putting and course management.
“Leona has never been afraid to step out there and fail and then go back to it again,” Kearney added. “She knows there is more to get, there’s more to do, there is more to work on.”
When Ireland won its first bronze medal in the 2016 World Amateur Team Championships for the Espirito Santo Trophy in Mexico, it was world No 1 Maguire who led Mehaffey and Wilson to glory.
“We were getting off the bus for the final day in Mexico and Leona said to the other two girls, ‘Right, let’s get this today, this opportunity might not come again,’ ” Kearney recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘Shut up, Dave. It has been spoken.’ The team talk was made in that sentence.
“And that’s the way she operates. Let’s be honest. She’s not the strongest, she’s not the tallest, she hasn’t got the long, fluid beautiful golf swing. But she has worked her buns off, and she has put herself in a space where she sees herself and perceives herself in that space and, as a result, I think a lot of the girls are looking at her and going, ‘Jesus, yeah, why not?’ ”
Top: Leona Maquire rose to No 1 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking while in college and recently finished second in the LPGA's Lotte Championship in Hawaii.