Twin peaks: Maguire sisters finding their place in the great golfing galaxy
Co Cavan twins are as close as ever as they look to reach the elite of the women’s game
Leona and Lisa Maguire recently signed a sponsorship deal with wealth management provider, Davy. Photograph: Getty Images
Lisa and Leona Maguire are talking Ted Bundy. They could talk you under the table about him, about what made him one of America’s most storied serial killers, about the depths of his depravity and the enormity of his crimes.
“We had this great lecturer in criminal psychology, Dr Blackshear,” Leona explains. “The first day we were there, he started off by going, ‘If any of you have taken this class because you like CSI or Law & Order . . . you’ve come to exactly the right place!’
“That class had about 50 people in the lecture hall,” says Lisa. “It was the one class that everybody went to and everyone stayed to the end. You know the way at the end of classes, people would be looking at their watches and shuffling their papers to get out the door? That never happened in this class. He always ended the class on a cliff-hanger – he’d introduce a case and give you all the details and then cut it off right towards the end.”
If it wasn’t for golf, Lisa Maguire would most likely be well on her way to being a dentist by now and Leona would have headed towards actuary. Instead, they were recruited to Duke University in North Carolina in 2014 and studied psychology and marketing management, one module of which was criminal psychology. So it is that they can give you your fill of death row and insanity pleas and life in the folds and crevices of criminal justice.
None of this is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the golfing Maguire twins of Ballyconnell, Co Cavan. They are 24 now, out in the world as grown adults with their own paths to find and their own particular needs to guide them. The existing roadmaps aren’t terribly detailed so they mostly live in lines of their own bespoke cartography.
How could it be otherwise? They have always been one-offs, even as there were two of them. It’s 13 years since they were schoolgirls carrying the Ryder Cup to the stage in the K Club for the presentation ceremony after Europe demolished the USA. Ever since, they’ve always been a strange sort of famous.
Known within Irish golf circles as the coming force – first Lisa, then both, then Leona. A half-told mystery to the general populace though, partially because they have a natural rural quiet about them, partially because they’ve always been young. But partially as well because any twosome cedes less of its individual parts to the world than either would on their own.
“When I won the Irish Close over in Westport in 2007, we ended up on the front of The Irish Times,” says Leona. “But we didn’t do our summer exams at school that year because we were playing golf. I remember when we went back in September, we had this maths teacher who always read the paper before class. And he was sitting up the top of the room with the paper open and the two of us on the front of it. ‘Someone got caught skipping their summer exams!’”
This has been their life, through adolescence, through their teenage years and beyond. Lisa was the world under-12 champion when they were 11 – Leona came third. A year later, Leona won the Hermitage Scratch Cup while Lisa was third in the Irish Close at Lahinch. Both tournaments were open to adults and both of them left a trail of beaten grown women in their dust. In 2008, Leona beat Lisa in the final of the Irish Women’s. The same year, Lisa beat Leona in the final of the Irish Girls’.
“Lisa always used to be better than me,” says Leona. “She always used to hit it further. I don’t think I was ever jealous. If I was, I don’t remember it. Obviously I would have liked to have been the one winning, certainly. Her trophy was a lot bigger than mine.
“But I wouldn’t think jealous was the word. We were definitely competitive. It was more, ‘She won yesterday so I want to win today.’ That sort of thing. It didn’t really matter what it was – it might have been snakes and ladders or it might have been a game of football out in the back garden.”
They were born 15 minutes apart in November 1994 and ever since then, they’ve always come as a pair. They looked the same, sounded the same, dressed the same. Well, sort of the same. In the same clothes, let’s leave it at that.
“It used to drive Mam mad,” says Lisa. “She’d get Leona something and come out of the shop with it and I would go, ‘I want it too.’ And she’d have to go back in and see had they a second one.
“But sure then we’d start swapping things round on her – if there was a red outfit and a blue outfit, I’d be wearing the red bottoms with the blue top and Leona would be wearing the blue bottoms with the red top. She couldn’t win either way.”
“We’re lucky now,” says Leona. “Because we’re the same size, if we both like something we buy one of them and I wear it one day and Lisa wears it another.
“We’ve always been kind of a package deal, per se. And I suppose with that comes the obvious comparisons.”
Which is where it gets sticky. Or has the potential to, at any rate. By their mid-teens, the Maguires were making more or less the same sort of progress through more or less the same sort of ranks. Leona had caught up with Lisa’s initial burst of title-gathering and they became a formidable pairing in team golf and the obvious ones to watch individually.
As the end of school approached, however, Leona began to emerge as the one with the more rounded game. Lisa had real talent, especially around the greens – enough to win 16 amateur titles. But as soon as she went to Duke, her coach told her they had to completely remodel her swing if she was going to find her way to the LPGA Tour.
What followed were four years of frustration. On the face of it, Lisa had a damn respectable college career for Duke. She was on two ACC title-winning teams, made an All-American team in her freshman year, more than justified her scholarship along the way. But even three and four years in, there were so many rounds where she felt she was still trying to bed in a new swing rather than going out and playing the shots she needed to find a score.
“When we got to Duke, it was the right time to go at it and tweak things and do stuff that I had maybe been putting off,” Lisa says. “I wanted to pick up a bit more speed, I wanted to fine-tune the swing plane a bit, stuff like that. Stuff that needed to get a bit worse before it could get better. I just needed to go whole hog on it rather than doing a bit here and there when the weather allowed back home. But like, comparing anything to Leona is going to be tough!”
Tough for Lisa, tough for anybody. For all her achievements, Leona Maguire might still be the most under-rated athlete in Irish sport. Her four-year spell at Duke will stand for decades to come against anyone from anywhere.
She has the all-time record for weeks spent as the world’s number one amateur (135). Her stroke average of 70.97 is the lowest in the history of women’s college golf. She is the only player to have won the Annika Award for college player of the year twice, only the second to win the individual ACC title three times. She was the leading amateur in the field at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the winner of the British Women’s Amateur title the following year.
“Being around people who are so driven and hard-working at Duke was a big thing,” Leona says. “It’s nice in a way to be around people who are similar to yourselves. It’s not an anomaly to work hard, to have ambitions, to know where you’re going and where you want to be and to go after it. That’s the norm. That’s what everybody’s doing. So when you’re surrounded by people who are better than you or are trying to be better than you, you bring yourself up to that level.
“You have a lot of people who come from very wealthy backgrounds, private boarding schools and what have you. And they’re mixed in with guys who are going straight to the NBA. Grayson Allen was in our class. You take classes with these lads and a couple of months later you’re looking up at the TV and they’re playing in an NBA game. That’s what you’re aspiring to.”
And now that they’re out the other side of it, the real world is drumming its fingers on the table, staring them down and asking for their credentials. That they’ve been signed by Niall Horan’s management company, with various sponsorships built-in, gives them a bit of leeway while they’re getting their legs under them. But not a lot and not forever.
For Leona, expectations aren’t far short of stratospheric. When she posted her first win on the Symetra tour (one below the LPGA) a fortnight ago, banking a $22,500 cheque in the process, people mostly just shrugged and presumed it was the first of many. That’s her burden, that’s her blessing.
For Lisa, though the targets are lower, the pressure is just as high. That same week, she was in France at a lower-tier event connected to the Ladies European Tour. She made the cut with a fine 71 on the second day but finished with a 77 to tie for 41st place and a cheque for €363.25. Glamorous, it ain’t.
“Yeah, nobody was with me, I just went by myself,” Lisa says. “There’s a wee bit more of that now. You head to the airport, you fly somewhere, you figure it out when you get there. That’s the one thing about golf – it’s not the cheapest sport in the world to go out and play. You have to travel, you have to do what you have to do. Out in France, it was just me – no caddie or anything. Just get a trolley and play away.”
Next week, they go to Morocco together to play a full tour event and the following week it’s on to Dubai for a night tournament. The brass tacks of it are that these are weeks where Leona will be expected to compete towards the head of the field and Lisa will be hoping to do honour to her sponsor’s invite.
“Ah, look, obviously I would have liked to be winning all the way along the same as Leona,” Lisa says. “But I wasn’t going home and throwing the toys out of the pram when it didn’t happen. It never really bothered me.
“I will keep it going for the next while. Obviously, I’ll have to see how it goes. You have to be realistic about it and just be practical about it. That was the idea behind getting a good degree to have in your back pocket if it doesn’t work out. That’s always there, should you ever need it. I can always go back and do something else. Either way, golf is never going to be forever and ever.”
So on they go, out into the maw of the great golf galaxy to see where they can find their place in it. When they’re done, home is still where it always was. Back in Ballyconnell, they still share the same room and sleep in the same beds.
“The house didn’t get any bigger just because we went away playing golf,” Lisa laughs when you express surprise that they haven’t found themselves a bit more legroom over the years.
“We’ll have to win a few more titles before we can see about building an extension,” smiles Leona.
We assume, with rank unfairness, that they will. And yet nothing is inevitable. Lisa Maguire was a can’t-miss prospect before her sister ever was; Leona could be anything or it could all fizzle out over the coming years. The putts won’t always drop, nothing surer.
All of which makes this next phase of their career unmissable. Sorry, careers. Plural.
One name, two stories. Both compelling, however they play out.