Golf: five things to watch out for in 2018

Plenty of eyes will be on Leona Maguire as she moves into the professional ranks

 Leona Maguire: “It is about fine-tuning everything and getting that little bit better.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Leona Maguire: “It is about fine-tuning everything and getting that little bit better.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Number 1

An intimidating presence? Leona Maguire, all 5ft 6in tall, doesn’t immediately fit the profile. She is engaging in conversation, modest, even humble, and yet the eyes – as they do in so many champions – allow a window into the mindset of someone who has been the dominant women’s amateur player for the past number of years, and who in 2018 is set to move into the professional ranks.

Those eyes sparkle and have a clarity of purpose. It was the legendary Annika Sorenstam, a 10-time Major champion and perhaps the player most responsible for dramatically changing the profile of women’s professional golf, who once remarked “there are no short cuts to success”. And Maguire, a disciple of sorts, has adopted a carefully mapped-out pathway in being living proof of such a philosophy.

Let’s let the figures add up to digest how good this 23-year-old Co Cavan golfer – a prodigy of the ILGU’s development system who has moved to a different level since her under-graduate studies at the famed Duke University in North Carolina – is.

127 – the number of weeks – in two stints – that Maguire has spent as number one in the world amateur golf rankings. Her first spell extended from May 2015 until May 2016, when she was briefly dethroned by American Hannah O’Sullivan. On regaining the top spot in the rankings in August 2016, Maguire has stayed there ever since. She was number one for every single week of 2017, and has now started 2018 in familiar territory. The record of 130 weeks, held by Lydia Ko, is within her sights.

6 – the number of tournament wins Maguire claimed in 2017, five of them coming on the highly-competitive US collegiate circuit but, perhaps the biggest of them all, was her victory in the British Amateur Championship at Pyle & Kenfig.

Come May, Maguire will leave the hallowed corridors of Duke with a degree in psychology but also armed with a Symetra Tour card (the secondary circuit in the US) as she embarks on a professional career. Given her status as the dominant player in the world amateur rankings for almost three years, the likelihood is that Maguire will also earn opportunities – on sponsors’ invitations – on the LPGA Tour itself.

Certainly, in being living proof of Sorenstam’s philosophy of not taking short cuts to success, Maguire is ready for the new challenge ahead. Her first taste of professional golf came as a 12-year-old when – along with sister Lisa – she played in the Northern Ireland Ladies’ Open at Templepatrick. She very nearly won the European Masters on the Ladies European Tour in 2015 (bogeying the last to finish a shot behind winner Beth Allen). She made the cut (finishing tied 25th) in last year’s Ricoh British Open. She has won the Mark McCormack medal for being world number one for three straight years.

“My game has been building up nicely, and it will be nice to have one last semester [at Duke] and then, hopefully, make that jump to the professional ranks...For a long time people have been asking me ‘when?’ It was never a case of if, it was a case of when? It was about when I was ready.

“I think a lot of people were ready a lot sooner than I was, but I had a lot of boxes to tick before turning pro and [2017] was a big year for me, getting the British Amateur win. College golf has been a big learning experience, one of the best decisions I made, to play week in and week out on different grasses, in different conditions, lot of strokeplay, getting the chance to play in some pro events as well, and get that little taste of what it is about. It is like a mini tour in itself, the college golf circuit; it gives you a little snapshot of what to expect. Some of the courses are tour venues. It has been a huge part of my preparation, very beneficial.

“At this point I don’t think there are huge holes in my game, it is about fine-tuning everything and getting that little bit better. I have had the same coach getting on for 10 years, Shane O’Grady, and he has been great at mapping everything out, and talks about ladders and ticking off all those boxes along the way. We have taken the long-term approach to this, that’s been a big part of it, not trying to rush anything too quickly.”

Maguire’s team has always focused around her parents Breda and Declan and sister Lisa. Of that sibling rivalry, she explains: “I set very high standards for myself, and I think a lot of people talk about, ‘oh you must have felt great pressure to be world number one’, but nobody probably puts more pressure or sets high standards than me myself so I always try to get that little bit better. Having Lisa alongside me, she’s probably the biggest competitor I have ever had. Once I beat her I am pretty happy. Some of the best players in the world are big competitors too, but those bragging rights at home are equally as important.”

Not surprisingly, given her status as the hottest player in the amateur ranks, sports management agencies have pursued her signature. She will make a decision in the coming weeks.

“I think I have had a great team around me all the way up through the amateur game, and a lot of them will be a big part of my team when I turn pro. Shane, mam and dad, and whatever management company I decide to go with. Hopefully I make that transition as smooth as I possibly can.”

So, what of the aura that she has built up in the amateur game? She relates a story of playing in the Portugal Amateur Championship a few seasons back.

“We got to the range, got our golf balls and there were no spaces. We walked down the range, and Shane looked at me. ‘Did you not see the way everyone turned around?’ I had no idea. He could see it. It’s not something I try to do on purpose. Maybe when you win, and people expect you to win, it creates that. It is not a bad thing to have. I wouldn’t say I am too scary on the golf course but it is obviously something over time that builds up.”

For the next few months Maguire will combine finishing her academic studies with more collegiate golf events. Perhaps even another Curtis Cup at Quaker Ridge in June. Then the summer holds the exciting challenge of playing week in and week out with the pros. “It has been a long time coming. It’ll be nice to have a fresh start out there, to see how I perform against the best.”

Number 2

The decision to bring the 2018 edition of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation to the Glashedy links at Ballyliffin – the most northerly course in Ireland – will provide a huge boost to the region when it is staged from July 5th-8th. The tournament forms part of the links swing on the European Tour that also takes in the Scottish Open and the British Open.

The 14th hole on the Old Links at Ballyliffin golf club. Photograph: Getty Images
The 14th hole on the Old Links at Ballyliffin golf club. Photograph: Getty Images

“This has been many years in the making, not just over the last 10, but maybe 20, 30 years, the development of the club. We’ve come from a remote, rural village in Donegal to probably one of the best links complexes in the world, and we’re absolutely delighted at the vote of confidence from the European Tour and their partners in giving us this huge opportunity to showcase Ballyliffin, showcase Donegal and Derry, and the region on a world stage to an event now which has become one of the premiere golfing events in the golfing calendar in the world,” said Ballyliffin general manager John Farren.

With Rory McIlroy’s hosting of the tournament in tandem with the support of title sponsor Dubai Duty Free, and its elevation to form part of the Rolex Series, the Irish Open has re-established itself as one of the biggest events on the circuit. Spain’s Jon Rahm, currently fourth in the world rankings, will defend the title.

Number 3

Yes, he’s back. And the big question about Tiger Woods’s return to the circuit centres on his ability – after being plagued by injuries, his rehabilitation from fusion surgery to his back taking a long healing process – to win again.

Woods is expected to play a limited, self-controlled schedule of tournaments, and has decided the time has come to do so with himself as swing coach. Woods, who turned 42 years of age last Saturday, split with coach Chris Como in opting to figure his swing out for himself.

Former swing coach Butch Harmon is in the camp of those believing that Woods – stuck on 14 Majors since his last win, the 2008 US Open – will contend again. “Whether or not he can win a Major championship again, we’ll have to wait and see...I think he can win on the regular tour, and when he does that I think he’ll have confidence when he comes to a Major.”

Number 4

Yes, he’s back...and Rory McIlroy has mapped out the busiest pre-Masters schedule of his career in an effort to win that green jacket at the Masters, the only missing link in his quest for the career Grand Slam.

McIlroy’s season in 2017 was disrupted by injury which led to him closing down his season after the Dunhill Links in October to give his body a chance to fully recover from a rib-stress injury that first surfaced at the South Africa Open last January. After suffering a recurrence playing in the Players tournament, the recovery process was further compromised by an earlier than desired return to competitive action in the US Open at Erin Hills.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. While Woods is expected to play a limited, schedule of tournaments, McIlroy has mapped out the busiest pre-Masters schedule of his career. Photograph: Getty Images
Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. While Woods is expected to play a limited, schedule of tournaments, McIlroy has mapped out the busiest pre-Masters schedule of his career. Photograph: Getty Images

In a statement of intent that he is well and truly ready for the year ahead McIlroy has planned a full-on itinerary that sees him start his season with tournaments in the Middle East – in Abu Dhabi and at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic – followed by a stint stateside where he will play the AT&T Pebble Beach Classic, the Genesis Open at Riviera, the Honda Classic, the Valspar Championship, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC-Dell Championship ahead of teeing up at Augusta.

Number 5

Some big, big team competitions scheduled for 2018: history will be made when Ireland plays host for the first time to the world amateur championships, the Eisenhower Trophy (men) and Espirito Santo Trophy (women), at Carton House in Maynooth, Co Kildare, in August; the Curtis Cup takes place at Quaker Ridge in New York in June, and the Ryder Cup will be held at Paris National in September.

Qualifying for the European team started with the Czech Masters last August and will finish at the Made in Denmark tournament, with eight places earned through the process and the remaining four places filled by captain Thomas Bjorn’s “wild card” picks. Paul Dunne (sixth on the world points list) and Shane Lowry (sixth on the European points list) have made strong starts to the qualifying campaign.

“The qualification process is long, and there’s so much that can happen over the summer,” observed Bjorn of how his team, seeking to regain the trophy after losing out to the USA in 2016, is shaping up.

“Golf is different to most sports. I’m not a football manager or a rugby coach and these guys are not my players [during qualifying]. I’m watching from afar...it’s a fascinating process, and something I am learning more about every single day.”

Europe has won six of the last eight stagings of the Ryder Cup (going back to 2002).

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