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Leona's class will light up the pro ranks


By Dermot Gilleece

One of the great joys of being a paid observer of golf is the possibility it presents of seeing history in the making. These are the occasions when the talent is so outstanding that the future success of the player is virtually guaranteed.

Which was clearly the case back in 1979 when Ronan Rafferty, as a 15-year-old, beat a professional field in pre-qualifying for the Irish Open. And it was even more evident in Rory McIlroy's Portmarnock exploits as a 14-year-old, a few months after he had won the President's Prize at Holywood GC with a six-under-par 63 gross.

In harsh October winds at Moyvalley in 2006, I first caught sight of Leona Maguire. During the Darren Clarke Foundation weekend, the eponymous professional watched intently as his deftly-struck chip-shot checked the ball before it eased to about two feet from the 16th pin.

"Get inside that if you can," he instructed the eager 11-year-old. And sure enough, Leona readily obliged, holing a 30-foot running shot with an eight-iron for a birdie on the toughest hole on the course.

Against this background, it's ironic that the short game should be the Slieve Russell girl's prime target for improvement, in the wake of last weekend's splendid victory over Spain's Ainhoa Olarra in the final of the British Women's Championship at Pyle and Kenfig GC in Wales. This can be explained, however, by her intention to join the LPGA Tour as a professional next year, after completing her studies at Duke University in North Carolina.

She is there with her sister Lisa, who famously caddied for her in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last August. Indeed the special bond that exists between twins is evident in their enduring closeness as 22-year-olds. "Lisa is a better putter than I am," said the world's No 1 amateur. For her part, Lisa responded: "We're definitely competitive. Even when we're at home or at college, we practise together all the time. So it's nice to have that competitive vibe."

In terms of talent, the pair seemed inseparable in their mid-teens. Leona captured the Irish Close title of 2008 at Westport GC, where she beat her sister 3&2 in the final, only for Lisa to dominate 12 months later when taking the title at Fota Island. In 2012, however, Leona won again, with an impressive two-hole victory over Jordanstown's Stephanie Meadow at Baltray.

There is nothing new about gifted sisters in golf, America's Harriet and Margaret Curtis being an early example. On this side of the pond, Edith Orr beat her sister in the final of the 1897 British Women's at Gullane, where a third sister reached the fourth round. Her father prevailed on Edith not to defend, however, on learning there had been betting on the outcome.

From an Irish perspective, the Hezlet sisters stood apart. In fact even at this remove, May Hezlet can be viewed as the only serious rival to Leona Maguire as the greatest ever Irish woman golfer. Had a world ranking system been in operation during her time, it is not stretching things to suggest she would have been No 1.

At 16 she beat Rhona Adair 5&4 to capture the 1899 Irish Close at Newcastle, and a week later, having just celebrated her 17th birthday, she added the British Women's at the same venue, which meant both trophies residing at her home club, Portrush. May's mother, the then lady president of Portrush, accepted the trophy on behalf of their club.

The idea of the Hezlet sisters May, Florence and Violet playing first, second and third in the Irish team of that time seemed to rankle with a certain TH Millar who, curiously, was vice-president of the LGU.

In fact he decided it was "time to put them in their place". So, he came with three male colleagues from Britain to challenge the sisters in a match at Portrush. Some years later, May Hezlet recalled that although she had crushed Millar 10&8, he insisted they should continue playing until he had won at least one hole.

But there was to be no respite. Millar was 16 down after 16, and though he succeeded in halving the remaining two holes, we can assume this had to do more with Miss Hezlet's generosity than his own resurgent skills. In fact all four men were beaten, the other three losing by less disastrous but nonetheless comfortable margins to Adair and the Hezlets, Florence and Violet.

The image of May Hezlet as an emancipated woman golfer long before her time is conveyed in her 1904 book, Ladies' Golf. She wrote of the tensions that arose in clubs in these islands, especially when women were classified as less than full members and all financial matters were managed by the men. In her view, the best arrangement was for women to pay a yearly rental out of their subscriptions and otherwise manage their own affairs, so avoiding "the disagreeable necessity of having to ask for anything".

Meanwhile, the Maguires are the pride of Duke, where the establishment's esteemed coach Dan Brooks, a six-time winner of the National Coach of the Year Award in the US, has particular respect for his top player. "Leona is a smart player," he said.

"Don't tell her I said this, but she's probably the smartest player I've ever coached. She can think better on the golf course than I ever could. She's really a very conservative player, and listening to how she thinks, it's incredible what you can learn from somebody that plays at her level. She is our least high-maintenance player.

"What that means is that she's like a lot of the best players that I've had - I end up not watching them play that much. I know what she's doing out there. She's thinking really well. She's sizing up the golf course and making smart decisions all round."

Typical of such thinking were her reflections on the Olympics. She told Global Golf Post: "Playing with Lydia Ko (world No 1 professional) in Rio, I could see she didn't hit the ball that much further than me, but from 100 yards and in, she was beside the pin every time. And then in the hole. That's the difference."

Looking to a professional career, she went on: "It's definitely a step up from the amateur game, playing three or four weeks on the trot as opposed to every few weeks. There is nothing major glaring at me but in general I think it will help if I can make my game a little tidier."

The most immediate consequence of last Saturday's triumph are exemptions into the US Women's Open at Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey (July 13-16) and the Ricoh British Women's Open at Kingsbarns (August 3-6), in which she was leading amateur last year. In between, she will play the Marathon Classic on the LPGA Tour.

This time next year, with attachment to a leading management group and a college degree in her locker, she hopes that sponsors' invitations will allow her to play her way onto the LPGA Tour, without having to go to Q-School.

And if her coach is right, a sparkling career beckons in professional ranks.

Belfast Telegraph

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