Last week the Irish Leona Maguire competed in the final pairing in the final round of the Meijer LPGA Classic. Maguire, 26, fought world number 3, Nelly Korda, until her final putt.
Even after Maguire finished second, just two strokes behind winner Korda’s 25 under par, the rookie put six birdies and no bogeys in his sophomore year (due to the pandemic, 2020 rookies have an extended rookie season in 2021) on sunday. And for the first time in her professional career, Maguire said, “I really feel like I’m out there.”
The former Duke star and 2016 Olympian is no stranger to the dominance of the leaderboards. This season she has four top 10 finishes. Maguire, who was ACC Player of the Year three times during her time at Duke, has held the all-time record for weeks (135) at No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. But since the beginning of her 2020 season, the KPMG brand ambassador has been looking for her first victory on the tour. And after last week, she feels closer than ever.
Maguire spoke to ESPN about her recent success on the tour, the importance of being a role model for the next generation of golfers, and her goals for this week at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, which began Thursday.
This interview has been edited and shortened for reasons of clarity.
ESPN: How was it to play against Nelly Korda in the final group of the Meijer LPGA Classic on Sunday?
Leona Maguire: It was exciting. It was the first time I was in the last group on the last day of an LPGA event. It was a really nice atmosphere, great excitement for the course last week and it was nice to make good punches and to be cheered on by people.
Nelly, she’s one of the best players in the world. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle. I suppose when I went into the game with a three-shot lead I knew she was quite a lead so I just wanted to put as much pressure on her as I could and keep things interesting on the track.
ESPN: In your post-round interview, you said that you were more comfortable on the course. How does this comfort help during a great week?
Maguire: I think the more comfortable you feel, the more shots you will take. And you don’t know how to deal with those situations like being a few shots behind the last group by the time you get there. These are the moments that you practice for. You hope you won’t be put in that position, but at the same time you don’t know how to deal with it until you get there.
That inner belief and confidence in yourself is important when you play against the best players week after week and it just makes you feel like you can play your own game and know that it is good enough.
ESPN: Your name is floating around on social media as you continue to dominate the course. How does it feel when you see all the social media posts climbing the leaderboards in these tournaments?
Maguire: It’s a big leap from the amateur rounds to the professional rounds; This probably also includes dealing with the additional media. A lot more television, a lot more social media, all of that.
I’ve gained a few followers in the past few weeks. And it’s nice that many messages of support even have people at home who can’t be here to watch the events or see it on TV. They sent me messages, wished me luck and all that. I really feel the love and support from home. And also from people all over the United States, which is something special.
ESPN: When you step into the spotlight more as a professional, I imagine a lot of young girls and boys looking up to you. What does it mean for you to be a role model for the next generation of golfers?
Maguire: This is really great. It is an honor to have children who look up to you. I know that there were a few at home, especially, who did school projects with me. They send me pictures or videos of the posters or a small project they did. And that’s really cool. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was one of those children who went to events like the Solheim Cup to watch and look up to Suzann Pettersen and Annika Sorenstam.
It’s a little crazy to be in my shoes when people ask for pictures and autographs. In fact, last Sunday at Meijer LPGA Classic I met a little girl who was also called Leona. It is a privileged position that we find ourselves in as professional athletes. You try to inspire people as much as possible. Ultimately though, it’s about being yourself and teaching what I do and what I do best, and working hard to help them wherever I can, whether or not they want to be a golfer is in school or whether to become a doctor or a lawyer or whatever.
ESPN: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still technically your rookie year. How was the last tour year for you as a rookie?
Maguire: My first year as a rookie was not what we expected. There should be a lot of new countries, a lot of new events and all that. The schedule has changed a few times, but it was nice to have the second half of the year to get a little foothold, travel, see some of the golf courses, find out how the LPGA works and how many events I would like to play in a row, something like that.
I didn’t play my best golf last year. I’ve changed my clubs a couple of times. I took stock, worked a lot with my coach in the off-season, changed my irons, got a little stronger, gained a little more with the driver. I wanted to start strong this year and I did. He got off to a good start and kept building that momentum every week.
Can Maguire, who has held the all-time record (135) at No. 1 in the WAGR for weeks, win the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship this week? Gregory Shamus / Getty Images
ESPN: How would you describe your game at the moment?
Maguire: I’ve done a lot of hard work. I didn’t qualify for the US Women’s Open, so I’m a little disappointed. I spent the weekend working really hard on my game. I’m in the process of refining things and I came to San Francisco for the MEDIHEAL championship and played great golf there. I struggled a little with my irons in the middle of the days but then it worked. I played really great golf last week.
I feel like my game is in good shape. Obviously, a major is the greatest test of that.
ESPN: This week the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship returns to the Atlanta Athletic Club. A few weeks ago, the US Women’s Open was held for the first time at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. How does it feel to play some of the best courses in the world?
Maguire: It’s huge. That’s one of the incredible things KPMG did to take the championship at these big venues. We all grew up watching the guys on TV playing the US Opens and PGA Championships in prime courts.
It’s amazing to be on these golf courses. And for me it is unbelievable not only to become more successful in competition with the best players in the world, but also to play on the best golf courses in the world.
ESPN: KPMG continues to highlight women’s football, and one of the ways to do that is through relationships with players like you. What is it like to be a KPMG brand ambassador?
Maguire: I was incredibly lucky. I am very lucky that you supported me. I turned pro after graduating from college in June 2018 and they were my first sponsor. You believed me from the start. They believed that I could do good in the LPGA even before I came to the LPGA.
I’m very grateful for that and it’s nice to have that. Golf is expensive, traveling every week is expensive so it’s nice to have the support of a great company like KPMG. They were very helpful and welcoming. I feel like part of a team and a family with them.
ESPN: You’re in really great company with fellow KPMG brand ambassadors like Phil Mickelson, Stacy Lewis and Mariah Stackhouse. How does it feel to be in this company? How is your relationship with them?
Maguire: I played college golf with Mariah when she was at Stanford and I was at Duke, so I know Mariah pretty well. Stacy has been a huge inspiration to me and a lot of the players out here. She is a former world number one and has amazing titles under her belt.
I looked up to Stacy for a long time. I have a feeling our games can be pretty similar, so she’s someone that I used to model my game on a bit. I was lucky enough to play with her for the first few days of the Meijer LPGA Classic last week. I tried poking around her brain a bit and she was really good with her time giving me advice. She has done some incredible things in the LPGA so hopefully I can follow in her footsteps and make KPMG proud.