Leona Maguire may be trending on social media for RTÉ Athlete of the Year favorites, but Ireland’s Solheim Cup hero insists we don’t make it a competition between her, Kellie Harrington, Rachael Blackmore and others should do, but simply celebrate their triumphs for what they are – massive achievements.
Less than 24 hours after her emotional homecoming in Ballyconnell, the 26-year-old Cavan woman was almost as delighted with her impact on Irish sport in general as she was with her clearly great trust-building performance in Toledo, Ohio as she prepares for the LPGA tour return to pursue their first win.
“I was a big part of the 20×20 campaign and one of the ambassadors for it,” she said of the struggle to increase women’s participation and media coverage of them by 20% by 2020. “I think one of the coolest things is seeing the effects of these things on people. To see all the little children returning home in Cavan. The power of sport is enormous and sometimes we may not even be aware of the range we have.
“When I’ve inspired some young children, it’s fantastic. Even if it’s not about playing golf, whether it’s soccer, or swimming, or boxing, or athletics, or whatever it is, I don’t think it really matters.
We are very fortunate to have so many talented Irish athletes right now and our female athletes are in a sense leading the way.
“In the last few months we have been a little more prominent at the Solheim Cup, the Olympic Games and the Paralympics and have received more coverage than usual. That is the beauty of these events. Hopefully we can build on this dynamic. “
Maguire never expected to play more than three games at Inverness Club, but after entering what she called a “fearless” partnership with the extroverted Mel Reid, a player who in many ways would be her opposite , she won four and a half of five points for the most successful Solheim Cup rookie of all time.
She’s already given the tip to compete with Olympic gold medalist Kellie Harrington, Aintree Grand National winner Rachael Blackmore, boxer Katie Taylor and Paralympic swimming gold medalist Ellen Keane for the RTÉ Sport Award this Christmas, but she doesn’t see that as helpful or important.
“I see things on social media like, oh who is going to be the Sportswoman of the Year?” and I don’t think it’s because of that. I think we can all celebrate triumphs for what they are, ”she said.
“I don’t think you have to compare them and play them off against each other. I think we should celebrate them for their achievements. We have wanted that for a long time.
“The 20×20 campaign was great, but to actually make it happen it is no longer paying lip service, it is Irish women athletes who are doing phenomenal things on the world stage and that is the most important thing.”
What her performance will do for her career now remains to be seen, but she is clearly on the media radar in the US after beating world number 1 Nelly Korda in team play twice.
While she still has to win on the LPGA Tour and lost to Korda at the Meijer LPGA Classic on the track in June, she’s not afraid.
“We’re both very competitive and both fearless and that was a big part of that first morning against the Korda sisters,” she said of her partnership with Reid.
“Neither of us was afraid to go up against this pair, and that was obviously the strongest pair the Americans could have brought out.
“They were unbeaten in this format and destroyed everyone last time. I think when we saw the draw, instead of being afraid of it, we were thrilled and enjoyed the chance to play against them. “
Meticulous except for one mistake, her pre-Solheim Cup call-up with Paul McGinley helped prepare her for the hostile crowds, and while she’s had an incredible year ranking eighth on the LPGA Tour scoreboard, she doesn’t care Pressure to add an LPGA win before the end of the year.
“You can’t guarantee anything, you hope that planning and preparation will come together at the right time, and luckily that is for the most part,” she said.
“I didn’t play as well in Tokyo as I would like, but I really played at Evian, the British Open and last week, it just has to come together at the right time; you need a few jumps here and there. “
As for the next level, described by Pádraig Harrington as one of Ireland’s greatest golfers, she tries to keep her feet firmly on the ground but knows that she has achieved her goal of belonging to the top level .
“A big part of this year at LPGA was believing that I belong; I believed that I could compete with the best players in the world week after week, ”she said, adding that the addition of caddy Dermot Byrne to her team at the Meijer LPGA Classic, where she was second to Korda, was a turning point .
“I showed that a few times this year with a few second places. I think it was tremendous for my confidence to compete with Nelly at the Meijer in Michigan earlier this year, even if I didn’t win that day.
“Knowing that I can serve next to her, currently the best player in the world, and play my own golf was enormous for me. That helped to get into the Solheim Cup. “
As for winning this year, she has about seven events left and while she thinks she can win, she is already looking to 2022.
“If I win, great. If not, I’ll take everything from this year and be excited next year, ”she said.
“The nice thing is that most of these golf courses that I return to for this run I played in Arkansas last year and then at Shoprite, which is where I started my professional career.
“So it’s nice to be able to return to familiar surroundings for these three weeks, unlike earlier in the year when it was all brand new golf courses. So I’m looking forward to coming back to them and trying to get myself into the competition as much as possible. If we win, great. If not, it was still a fantastic year. “
She has looked up to Harrington and Shane Lowry her entire life, and now hopes her Solheim Cup heroics will inspire her on the Ryder Cup team in Whistling Straits, provided the Offaly man makes the team.
“Yes, we had messages from all the Ryder Cup boys and Pádraig before the start and that, and the overarching message was: ‘Go, bring the cup home and give us some momentum,'” she revealed.
“So we’ve done our part, and it’s up to you to try the same thing in Whistling Straits in a few weeks.”