A genuine smile comes over Leona Maguire’s face at any suggestion that her onwards and upwards elevation on the LPGA Tour might be reaping unseen rewards, such as private jet travel or an enlarged back-up team of various and numerous specialists.
“The ladies’ side is very different to the men’s. I wouldn’t have a big entourage at the best of times. It’s not like the men’s where they travel around in private jets and have chefs and coaches and psychologists and physios and all the rest . . . my sister Lisa is here, and that’s the extent of my entourage. There will be a few of the girls I suppose with bigger groups, but I suppose just stick to my plan and what I do best,” says Maguire, speaking ahead of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, which gets under way on Thursday.
Sticking to the plan has certainly worked well for the 26-year-old Co Cavan golfer, still technically a rookie on the LPGA circuit, but delivering the sort of performances that were always promised when she led the amateur world rankings for a record 135 weeks and who has made a seamless transition to the main professional tour.
Indeed, a measure of Maguire's success so far this season is reflected in prize money earnings of $480,268 (€402,000) in which she has recorded four top-10s, most recently in a runner-up finish to Nelly Korda in the Meijer Classic last Sunday.
Everywhere, the graph is upwards. She’s 13th on the Race to CME Globe (order of merit) and to a career high 63rd on the Rolex world rankings (having started the year in 177th position). She’s within touching distance of an automatic place on Europe’s Solheim Cup team, potentially another pioneering step.
Maguire has quickly found her comfort level on the LPGA Tour, mixing it with the world’s best shot-for-shot and unafraid to back off. It’s nothing new, if we’re to be honest.
As she puts it: “It’s something I’ve always done, worked my way up through the levels and put in a lot of work in the off-season last year. I think it was nice to get that [in 2020], even if it was only a half-season, to find my feet and figure out how things worked last year.
“I was able to take things from that and work on some things over the winter and come out this year and really hit the ground running. I’ve been hitting my irons a lot better this year. I switched shafts in my irons which has really helped. The better you play, the more comfortable you are, I suppose.”
The past two weeks – coincidentally or not since hooking up with veteran caddie Dermot Byrne, who was on Shane Lowry's bag for many years – have seen Maguire lead after the first round in the Mediheal Championship and the Meijer Classic, going on to finish ninth and second respectively in back-to-back weeks.
“I split with my caddie Gary [Marshall] after [the Bank of Hope Matchplay in Las Vegas] and I rang Dermot when I was still in Vegas. I knew he was doing some European Tour stuff and asked him if he’d like to come out on the LPGA.
“He’d never caddied on the ladies’ side before but he was willing to take a chance. He wanted a new challenge . . . I think we see shots similarly.
“He very quickly got to know my clubs and how I like to play, so that definitely helps. He is pretty easy-going, doesn’t get fazed; whether we are in the lead or whether I have made a few bogeys, he doesn’t really react any differently. We have similar enough personalities, that way we are both reserved enough and get along pretty well together,” she explains.
This week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship is the third Major of the season. But rain in the Atlanta area is likely to make for a course with an increased emphasis on driving and playing very long with, as Maguire puts it, “zero run”.
“It is a case of trying to put myself into position every week. You don’t really know how you are going to react until you are in those positions. Last week [in the Meijer] was the first time I had ever played in the last group in an LPGA event and I felt like I handled it really well. I learned a lot from [the Mediheal in] San Francisco, what I could have done better, so I will take all of that momentum and experience into [the KPMG].
“It is a very different golf course this week, it probably will favour the longer hitters so I will have to try and rely on my wedges on the Par 5s a bit more and just really squeeze every last bit out that I can.
“There has been a lot of rain, so it is incredibly wet. It is playing really, really long. There is absolutely no run on the ball, the 9-wood is going to be getting a lot of use this week. The past few days, there’s been a lot of 6-iron, 9-woods, hybrids that sort of thing into the greens [in practice rounds].
“I imagine the greens will try to get them a little bit faster and firmer weather permitting, so it is going to be about really good ball-striking this week and taking your chances where you get them.”
As a brand ambassador with KPMG, Maguire has contributed a number of videos as part of the company’s performance series. “Golf and working to perform consistently amongst the world’s best golfers means I am consistently learning. I know from balancing work and study prior to turning professional that the lessons learnt on and around the golf course have many potential applications. I’m delighted to be able to tell some of the things and processes I find useful to incorporate into my daily routine to help me perform under pressure.”
Maguire is a busy young woman. A week off beckons after this week’s Major but, from there on, it is hectic: the Marathon Classic in Ohio, the Dow Invitational in Michigan (where she will team up with Patty Tavatanakit) followed by the Evian (the season’s fourth Major) in France after which he will have a few days at home in Cavan before flying to the Olympics in Tokyo and then straight back for the Scottish Open and the AIG Women’s Open.
“It’s a busy run, a lot of air miles will be clocked up but there are some great events to look forward to,” says Maguire.
KPMG Women’s PGA Championship Lowdown
Purse: €3.75 million (€555,000 to the winner)
Where: Atlanta, Georgia
The course: The Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club – which previously hosted the US Women's Open in 2011, won by Betsy King – originally had design inputs from Robert Trent Jones and Joe Finger before Rees Jones carried out a substantial redesign in 2006. The signature hole is the Par-3 15th, played downhill across a pond to a green with a line of bunkers to the rear. The course will play to a Par 72 of 6,831 yards.
The field: It's a Major, so it features a Who's Who of the women's professional game with Sei Young Kim the defending champion. South Koreans dominate the world rankings – with Jin Young Ko at one and Inbee Park at two – but American Nelly Korda, winner of the Meijer Classic, continues to make upward moves and is up to fourth in the rankings. Leona Maguire has moved up to 63rd following her runner-up finish to Korda.
Quote-Unquote: "I'm pretty accurate with my long irons . . . I could attack the pins where people would hit it to 30 or 40 feet. We'll see." – Danielle Kang, seeking to become the first American winner of the event since she took the title in 2017.
Irish in the field: Leona Maguire is a group with A Lim Kim and Moriya Jutanugarn (off the first tee at 1.49pm Irish time in the first round), while Stephanie Meadow has Katherine Kirk and Eun-Hee Ji for company (off the 10th at 5.43pm Irish time).
Betting: Given the likely premium distance, Danielle Kang – still seeking out a first win this season – might finally get back into the winner's enclosure and is available at 20-1 . . . A Lim Kim, last year's US Open champion, is worth an each-way look at odds of 125-1.
On TV: Live on Sky Sports Golf from 5pm.