Leona Maguire becomes the first Irish winner on the LPGA: A long time coming but worth the wait

The 27-year-old star of the 2021 Solheim Cup claimed the LPGA Drive On Championship at Crown Colony G&CC in Florida.

Leona Maguire's successful quest to win on the LPGA might just be one of the greatest slow-burn golfing missions of them all.

"It hasn't sunk in yet, it's surreal and it's been a long time coming," she admitted after her three shot victory in last week's LPGA Drive On Championship.

Typically, when a prodigy takes time to land a first success at the highest level, there is fretting involved, a sense of time running out, the feeling that whenever they are in contention the entire golf course is covered in egg shells no-one wishes to step on.

There was something about Maguire's much-awaited triumph, however, that separates it from those of other golfers - and not just that it was Ireland's first win on the LPGA.

There's absolutely no doubt, of course, that she would have liked to have won as soon as possible and yet, at the same time, her life decisions have been deliberate and measured, ones that suggest she was not going to be rushed into playing at the top level, an approach you suspect helped her not panic about how long it took to win when she finally got there.

Together with her twin sister Lisa (now working for Modest! Golf who manage Leona), Maguire was feted from a young age in Ireland.

Their amateur successes were often remarkable, prompting column inches and invitations to play professional events. She played the Northern Ireland Ladies Open at 13, debuted in the Irish Open at 15, made the cut at 16.

The 2011 Irish Open was held at Killeen Castle, also the host of that year's Solheim Cup. Women's golf in Ireland was gaining more attention than ever and Maguire was followed by an excited gaggle of spectators in a first round group with Lexi Thompson and Stacy Lewis.

Thompson was another precocious talent, three months younger than Maguire in fact, and she had already taken the route the majority now take: she'd turned pro the previous year, would win in both Europe and America by year's end, triumph in a Major Championship before she was 20, amass a fortune.

The more giddy fans in those Killeen Castle galleries imagined similar immediate success for Maguire; even the more conservative were expecting the professional adventure would soon start.

None of that happened.

She continued to trounce the opposition in the amateur ranks, and very nearly won the Ladies European Tour's British Masters in 2015, but she liked studying, too, so joined Duke University in North Carolina, piling up college honours, representing Ireland at the 2016 Olympics, helping GB&I win two Curtis Cups, and topping the world amateur rankings for a record period.

The method and this patience cannot be underestimated, not least because it is so untypical.

When Chris Wood excelled in the 2008 Open as a young amateur he admitted that to have not turned professional immediately would have been immensely difficult because every time he teed it up in an amateur event, with no fans and no buzz, he'd have been thinking about where he could be. It's a natural response (and his decision was ultimately proved a correct one).

That Maguire chose another route does not make it the wrong one; that she felt so at ease with her decisions is what counts.

After the win on Saturday vindicated her decisions she said: "It's been a meticulous journey. I did it my way, the way I wanted to do it, with the help of my team around me.

"I feel like the way I've gone about it, I've been prepared and mastered each level."

Even when her LPGA Q School experience in late 2018 left her one shot shy of a card her response was pragmatic: a season on the second tier Symetra Tour followed; a learning curve.

Her first brush with a pre-final round lead prompted a wobble. No bother, a week later she completed the job and added another win and a play off defeat to confirm graduation to the main tour.

After a Covid-disrupted rookie season, 2021 proved Maguire had found her legs at the top level: 14 top 30s, five of them top 10s, two runner-up finishes.

Perhaps most telling was this nugget: when every round played in 2021 was adjusted for field strength and average, one player alone had more than one lap ranked in the top 20.

It was not Nelly Korda, not Jin Young Ko, nor was it Lydia Ko. It was Maguire - and she had not two, but three, in there.

The timing of her victorious Solheim Cup debut was probably ideal: towards the end of a fine year of individual success that had nonetheless failed to reap a win. The change in format, the return to the team golf she had thrived on in the last, let her off the leash.

She teamed up with Mel Reid to win two matches and halve a third, added another win with Georgia Hall, and thumped Jennifer Kupcho 6&5.

She was a European star and enjoyed a hero's welcome back home in Cavan - a fire engine flying the national flag led a convoy of cars, Maguire waving from one of them to the fans who lined the streets.

"I couldn't have done it without the support of everyone here in the local community," she said.

Of her performance in the Team Europe win, Reid said: "This girl, honestly, she's some player." And the US captain Pat Hurst added: "She's one we're going to fear for years to come."

Last week in Florida she shared the pre-final round lead with Marina Alex. In a neat echo of 11 years earlier, Stacy Lewis was in third and Lexi Thompson would end the week in second.

So close to the ultimate goal with 18 holes to play, Maguire's methods didn't alter. Her words afterwards could be describing the last decade, not the 24 hours ahead of the three shot victory.

"Didn't get ahead of myself," she said. "Didn't want anybody to have to hand it to me. I wanted to go out, win it myself, earn it."

READ MORE: Nicolai makes it five wins for the Hojgaard twins with Ras Al Khaimah Championship success

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