Top-ranked Irish golfer Leona Maguire talks about her hopes for a European win at the upcoming Solheim Cup, what it means for the 28-year-old to represent her country and her continent, and how she’s finding life competing on two tours
First up, how much are you looking forward to being part of Team Europe again for the upcoming Solheim Cup matches? And what kind of form do you feel that the team looks to be in right now? I’m really looking forward to it. I love match play golf, as it kind of brings out the competitor in me. Going head-to-head with one player, or a couple of players, rather than a whole field, gives it an intensity that I love. So, yes, I can’t wait to get to Spain and to get stuck in.
A lot of Europeans are playing well. Celine [Boutier] has won three times this season and twice in recent weeks, Charley [Hull] won in the US last year, Georgia [Hall} has had a good season, and the Swedish players are all playing very well, so the core of the team looks strong. There are couple of new faces in there, such as Linn [Grant] and Gemma [Dryburgh], as well as some more experienced ones like Carlota [Ciganda] and Caroline [Hedwall], so I think we’ve got a nice balance to the team. I know the American team will be strong too. Lilia Vu has won three times, including a major, and Nelly Korda is playing well, so they’ll be a tough proposition. Like any year, on paper the US team probably looks a bit stronger, but when it comes down to it, both teams will be really competitive. We have a great captain in Suzann [Pettersen] and I’m sure she’ll have no problem in getting us all fired up for it.
How did it feel to be chosen as a wildcard in 2021 and come out with 4.5 points and help Europe to a famous away win? That just gave me the confidence to know that I could compete with the best and, on my day, beat them. We got under the Americans’ skin that week. Everything on paper suggested it would be a whitewash, but we went toe-to-toe with them, with hardly any support because of the Covid travel restrictions, and it told me that my game is good enough to beat these girls.
You enjoyed your breakthrough win on the LPGA Tour last season with victory at the LPGA Drive On Championship and followed that up with a win at the Meijer LPGA Classic in June. How would you assess your season so far? It’s been a strange season, a little stop-start to begin with, but I’ve played some really good golf for the most part. I had some decent finishes early in the season, and then I was fortunate enough to get the win in June, and I’ve kind of just kicked on from there.
All the majors were packed very tightly into a few weeks, so it was important to find your form and keep that momentum going, and although I played OK in them, I never really threatened except for the PGA Championship, where I was leading going into the final round and just ran out of gas. I think the win the week before took a lot out of me. I was quite drained come Sunday and just didn’t have enough in the tank to get over the line.
It was obviously a new experience for me to be in in the lead and in the last group on Sunday of a major, with all the emotions that went along with that. I’d like to think that if I get myself in that position again, I’ll approach it a little differently and I’ll have learned from that experience.
While you obviously want to perform well in all your events, do you try and build your schedule around peaking for the majors? And if so, is there any science to that? A lot of it comes through experience, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. So, you get confidence in knowing that you are well prepared, and you’ve been working on the right things. On top of that you’ve got to be mentally prepared for the challenge and that kind of gets easier the more you play in those top events. You never really know when it’s going to be your week, so you just want to be in the best possible shape when the opportunity arises so that you’re ready to grab it with both hands.
What do you feel that it will take to make that Major breakthrough?
If you break it down, it’s just four rounds of golf. I’ve had top 10s in the Majors and held the lead after individual rounds at the Majors, so it’s not a million miles away, is it? I’ll embrace the challenge, but you can’t let yourself think what it would mean, you can’t project.
Are there any specific things you’re working with on your game at the moment?
I’m trying to make improvements all the time in all aspects of my game. My driving was something that my coach and I paid particular attention to earlier in the year, getting the accuracy up, but I’ve also been working on my iron play and my putting more recently, so there’s never anything you can be totally happy with.
How have you found competing in Europe and the States? Yeah, I’ve clocked up a few miles going back and forth around the world, that’s for sure. The main challenge is getting used to the contrasting course conditions – preparing yourself for putting on different green speeds and encountering different types of rough, that kind of thing. A lot of the courses are still new to me, so there’s also that to contend with.
The women’s professional game seems to be breaking new ground in that some key tournaments are being held at iconic venues that have traditionally mainly hosted men’s events like Pebble Beach, Baltrusol, and most recently, Walton Heath for the Women’s Open. Is that something you’ve noticed or been excited by? Yes, there have been a lot of great venues this year. I think that’s the exciting thing for us. Shadow Creek for the Matchplay was a great test, while Liberty National was fantastic as well. Obviously, Pebble Beach, Baltrusol, Walton Heath, they’re all big venues where I’ve grown up watching the lads play, so one of the more exciting things about our schedule this year is the quality of the courses we’re now starting to go to.
I’d never been to Pebble Beach before, and it’s one of those places that all golfers would love to play one round, so we were fortunate enough to play a whole week around there. It was great fun, and I think we will hopefully continue to be challenged on the world’s top courses.
How do you feel about the direction the women’s professional game is going in general? I suppose our tours are not quite as glamorous as the lads. We’re not staying in five-star hotels every week with our chefs and physios, but at the same time we’re very lucky to get to do what we do. And the events are improving all the time. The prize money is better, we’re getting treated better, and they’re putting a lot more effort into the whole player experience, so I really don’t have much to complain about.
As Ireland’s top-ranked women golfer, and the expectations that come with that, can you relate to the pressures that Rory McIlroy is under? Rory has a lot more resting on his shoulders than I do, but all professional players put pressure on themselves to be the best they can be. When things are going well, it’s all very easy and very rosy, but when you’re struggling to play as well as you know you can, it’s obviously a lot tougher. I’ve been pretty lucky throughout my career, I suppose. Obviously, I missed Q-School the year I turned pro, which was definitely a big disappointment, and I had to dust myself off pretty quickly after that and get on with things.
Different people react to different adversities in different ways, but I’ve always been fortunate to have good friends and a supportive family, and my entire team has helped me along this journey.
We’re the ones who hit the shots, but there are a lot of people behind the scenes that help make our lives a bit easier. It’s all a balance and accepting it’s not always easy. Even if you’re one of the best players in the world, it’s not always going to be going well, so you have to not get too high with the highs and not get too low with the lows.
You have a degree in psychology. Has that helped with your mental approach to the game at all? I have my degree, but I’m certainly no expert in it. A lot of my confidence comes from knowing that I’m as prepared as I possibly can be going into every single event. It’s a whole mix of everything. I’ve never consistently worked with sports psychologists. I’ve read bits and pieces and I’ve talked to different people along the way. I’ve picked Paul McGinley’s brains. I’ve picked Padraig Harrington’s brains. I’ve had chats with Graeme McDowell, and I generally ask questions whenever and wherever I can. I think you just pile it all together and pick which bits suit you at a particular moment in time. That’s the thing about golf – and psychology in general – you’ve just got to figure out what works best for you. I don’t think there’s any magic bullet.
You’ve just played in the two events in front of your home fans at Galgorm Castle for the ISPS HANDA World Invitational and at Dromoland for the Women’s Irish Open. What was it like to play in front of that kind of support?
It was great. The World Invitational seemed a much bigger event than last year, and we had some players over from the LPGA Tour and we were competing for the same prize money as the lads. I think the biggest thing was the crowds and the support I had at both events. That was unbelievable. To play in front of home fans for a few weeks was a nice way to cap off a busy and exciting summer, and a great way to prepare for the noise and the support that we’ll hopefully get at the Solheim Cup.