Duke golfer’s first goal is an NCAA championship

Leona Maguire, left, of Ireland, walks up the 18th fairway with Lisa Maguire, right, her twin sister and caddie, during a practice round for the women's golf event at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016.
Leona Maguire, left, of Ireland, walks up the 18th fairway with Lisa Maguire, right, her twin sister and caddie, during a practice round for the women's golf event at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. AP

Leona Maguire of Duke is the top-ranked women’s amateur golfer in the world but is hardly satisfied.

Maguire wants a national championship for the Blue Devils.

She wants a Duke degree.

That done, she wants a long and successful career on the LPGA Tour.

There was a time last fall when it appeared Maguire might skip the first two and leave Duke early to play professional golf. Many believed she was ready for it, that the native of Cavan County, Ireland, had the game, the drive and the temperament.

But as Maguire put it, “It felt like we had some unfinished business here.”

One piece of business was an ACC championship. Virginia had won ACC titles in Maguire’s first two years at Duke, but the Blue Devils won by nine shots over Florida State last month at The Reserve Golf Club in Pawley’s Island, S.C.

“That was a big thing to check off the list,” Maguire said.

Maguire, the 2015 national college player of the year, led the way by taking ACC medalist honors for the second time in three years. With three individual wins and nine top-10 finishes, the junior also was named ACC player of the year for a second time.

The Blue Devils did not win the NCAA regional last week in Albuquerque, N.M., but played well in tough, gusty conditions. After finishing second to top-ranked Stanford in the regional, they like their chances when the 2017 NCAA Championship begins this week at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill.

“I feel very good about our team, especially after our last two rounds at Albuquerque,” said Duke coach Dan Brooks, who has led the Blue Devils to six NCAA titles. “Some teams would have quivered. Our team never quivered.”

The top six teams in each regional advance to nationals, and the Blue Devils were tied for sixth after the first day and fourth after two rounds. Duke needed a solid finishing round and got it – an even-par 288 total that was the day’s low score.

“That told me a lot about this team,” Brooks said. “They stayed strong.”

Duke's Leona Maguire, the 2017 ACC women's golfer of the year, offers up some fun facts May 12, 2017, on teammates Virginia Elena Carta, Ana Belac, Sandy Choi, sister Lisa and herself as the Blue Devils prepared for the 2017 NCAA Championship.

Maguire did her part in the final round with a 1-under 71. Senior Sandy Choi struggled with an 81, but the Blue Devils’ fourth counter among the five players would be Lisa Maguire with a 73.

Lisa Maguire is Leona’s twin sister. While not identical twins, the two easily could be mistaken for each other, and especially so last summer when they were dressed in matching golf outfits in a unique tournament – at the Olympics in Rio.

Leona Maguire was selected to represent Ireland in the 2016 Summer Games and tied for low amateur in the first Olympic golf competition since 1904.

“It was unbelievable,” she said of the Olympic experience. “It’s the biggest sporting event in the world, and to be a part of that was special, considering golf was back in the Games after such a long time.”

Lisa Maguire caddied for her sister, and Leona laughed when asked if the two were tempted to slyly switch places on a hole, at least in a practice round, with Lisa hitting a few shots and Leona carrying the bag.

“I think she would have liked that,” Leona said.

Leona Maguire had announced her intentions to turn professional and off to the LPGA Qualifying Tournament she went. She made it through the second stage of the Q-School, finishing sixth, when she had a change of heart and announced she would stay at Duke.

Maguire, 22, talked with her family, her sister. She talked with Brooks. She talked with Kevin White, Duke’s athletic director.

Maguire considered how the Blue Devils had played in the East Lake Cup in early November in Atlanta. In a match-play format like the one used to determine the NCAA championship, Duke beat UCLA and then Washington, the 2016 NCAA winner.

“We came together as a team at East Lake, and I think that meant a lot to her,” Brooks said. “She loves the team aspect, and I think she said to herself, ‘Hey, man, this could be really special and I do not want to walk away from it.’”

Or leave her sister. The two, whose parents are schoolteachers, grew up playing golf at Slieve Russell Golf Club in Ballyconnell, a small town that is walking distance from the border with Northern Ireland.

Both were big junior stars, playing together for Great Britain and Ireland in the 2010 Curtis Cup. They could have picked different schools to play college golf but didn’t, deciding the blend of academics and golf at Duke was what they wanted.

Lisa Maguire has had her ups and downs at Duke – “She’s got a lot of game, too,” Brooks said – and has been revamping her swing.

“She struggles with it, but she’s a happy kid who like Leona sees the big picture,” Brooks said. “She wants to go on and play (professionally) but it does not have to happen at the same pace.”

Duke has fallen short in the NCAA Championship the past two years, losing each time in the semifinals of match play. In 2015, Leona and Lisa each lost grueling matches against Baylor – Lisa’s lasting 24 holes – as the Blue Devils were upset 3-2. A year ago, Leona’s 1-up loss to Casey Danielson of Stanford was the difference in another 3-2 loss.

“That left a bad taste in our mouths,” Leona Maguire said.

Duke’s Virginia Elana Carta won the NCAA individual title as a freshman last year, but the Blue Devils are after more.

“We’d like to go a step further and be coming home with a different color trophy this year,” Maguire said.

Maguire plans to remain at Duke through graduation next year. A psychology major, she said she’s as proud of her 3.93 grade-point average as her impressive 70.0 stroke average this year on the golf course.

“I pride myself on, if I do something, I do it to the best of my ability, and probably leaving early would have meant not doing that,” Maguire said. “It was an important thing, that I finish up here the best that I could and be as best-prepared for going on the LPGA Tour when the time comes.”

Brooks said there are no big weaknesses in Leona’s game, although she stressed she can be a better putter – a common golfer’s refrain.

“She’s had a great year,” Brooks said. “She’s maintained that No. 1 amateur spot, won tournaments, and she keeps getting better, keeps improving. She’s as driven as they come.”

Chip Alexander: 919-829-8945, @ice_chip

Golf accolades for Duke’s Leona Maguire

2017, No. 1 in World Amateur Golf Rankings

2015, consensus national player of the year

2017, 2015, ACC player of the year

2015, 2016, 2017, All-ACC selection

2016, Rio Olympics golf, represented Ireland, low amateur

2016, Women’s British Open, low amateur

2017, College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-District III Women's At-Large Team

2016, 2015, Women's Golf Coaches Association All-American Scholar

2012, 2010, Curtis Cup team, Great Britain & Ireland