Duke sisters lead golf team

The highly-regarded recruits were expected to prosper in their first seasons at Duke. But not like this.

Jahlil Okafor became the first ACC basketball player to win honors in the same season as both the league’s top freshman and player of the year. Then the 6-11 center helped the Blue Devils capture the 2015 NCAA championship, their fifth title under Mike Krzyzewski.

A month later 5-6 Leona Maguire became the fourth Duke women’s golfer honored as both the ACC’s freshman and player of the year. She also won the ACC Individual Championship in a sudden-death playoff. Last week she assumed the No. 1 ranking among the world’s amateur female golfers. Maguire and her 70.68-stroke average – best in Duke women’s history (Amanda Blumenherst averaged 71.00 in 2007 and 2008) and improving as the season climaxes – head next to the 2015 NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championships at Bradenton, Florida.

Four ACC teams are in the field from May 22 through 27: Duke, N.C. State, Virginia and Wake Forest. The six-day event has a new format. Following 72 holes of stroke play, an individual champion emerges. Then the eight top teams switch to three rounds of match play, the better to appeal to a Golf Channel audience. A win by fourth-rated Duke would secure the school’s seventh title under coach Dan Brooks.

Maguire and Okafor both chose Duke as part of package deals. Okafor came with guard Tyus Jones, fulfilling a pact the friends made in the ninth grade. Leona Maguire came with Lisa, her twin sibling, a bond that goes back, well, a lot farther.

“They’re always together,” says teammate Gurbani Singh. “They room together. I think they like it the way it is. I guess they have a comfort level for each other.” Lisa Maguire, whose golf scores have slipped while working with Brooks to remake her swing, says the identical twins typically coordinate what they wear, as much to avoid confusing others by stressing differences as to match.

“Obviously we’ve done everything together growing up,” notes Lisa, wearing a blue Duke cap, white golf shirt, and blue skirt. Leona sports a white Duke cap, blue shirt with white horizontal stripes, and white shorts. “We’ve kind of come as a pair. When we were looking at schools over here, we tried to keep an open mind. If one of us really preferred another school we planned on going separate ways.”

Brooks laughs. “Yeah, for like two minutes.”

39 titles combined

The choice came down to Purdue and Duke, with weather a key consideration. The Maguires hail from Cavan, Ireland, a small town near the border with Northern Ireland. Cavan’s average temperature in July, its warmest month, is 59 degrees, 30 degrees cooler than Durham. On average it has more than twice as many rain days as Durham.

The amiable pair forsook swimming and soccer about a decade ago at the urging of their father, Declan Maguire. They quickly prospered on the links. At age 11 both sisters played at the Under-12 World Golf Championship in Pinehurst, with Lisa Maguire winning the event. Leona tied for third. Later Leona became the youngest player in history to win the British Ladies Open Stroke Play.

Members of the Irish National Team since 2007, the Maguires have won a combined 39 amateur titles. At age 15 the sisters competed in the Curtis Cup Match, a biennial amateur event pitting eight female golfers from the U.S. against a like contingent from Great Britain and Ireland. Leona Maguire was on the 2012 GB&I team that beat the U.S. for the first time since the mid-1990s.

Golf allowed the Maguires to travel throughout Europe and to South and North America. “It’s definitely a perk,” Lisa Maguire says. “You kind of broaden your horizons that way.” In fact, they were scouted by Brooks at a tournament in Texas once he realized the daughters of Irish school principals planned to pursue their education rather than skip college for top-level pro competition, an option in golf.

That cosmopolitan background simplified blending with Duke players from Canada, China, France, India and South Korea. Intrasquad competition is bracing. Junior Celine Boutier was the 2014 National Player of the Year. Those two, plus sophomore Sandy Choi, made this season’s 12-member All-ACC team, the 16th straight year with at least a pair of Blue Devils on the squad.

“Top to bottom, from number one to five in the lineup, we’re arguably the hardest-working team we’ve had,” says Brooks, in his 31st year at Duke. “I wouldn’t put any previous team ahead of us talent-wise. I think we’re right there.” Considering Brooks’ squads have been to NCAA postseason play 23 straight times, won a record 18 ACC titles and 122 tournaments, most in the history of the sport, that’s high praise.

“He’s been around and been very successful. He knows the game and knows the game at the college level,” says Kim Lewellen, the 2015 ACC coach of the year at Virginia and a grad of Raleigh’s Broughton High. “He’s a very good person to bounce ideas off of. The first person I go to talk to is Dan – ‘What would you do?’”

The opportunity to work with Brooks, 57, was another reason the Maguires chose Duke. They too value him as a sounding board and fount of “knowledge and wisdom,” as Leona Maguire puts it.

“Waiting for my turn”

Lucky guy. “They’re two phenomenal players,” says Lewellen. The 1993 UNC alumna led Virginia to this season’s ACC team title, only the fourth time in the past 20 years a school besides Duke triumphed. “When I watch the Maguires, what they’re good at is, their short game is phenomenal, their putting and chipping. Phenomenal. And I would say that and their game planning, the way they play the golf course.”

The sisters are in agreement Leona is currently the duo’s superior player. “It changes over from time to time, but right now it’s me,” she says. But Lisa isn’t conceding entirely. “Growing up, it’s always kind of swung like that,” she says. “I’m waiting for my turn.”

The Maguires are “pretty competitive in general,” Lisa adds. “We can get pretty competitive on the course sometimes, but it usually ends there.”

Not always. Asked to describe her sister, Lisa eyes Leona and offers “hard-working,” “reserved” and “reliable – most of the time.” Leona blandly counters that Lisa is “a little stubborn, a bit headstrong,” and “pretty hard-working and quite patient – most of the time.”

These might be fighting words for some siblings, but not the Maguires. “We’re pretty laid back. We don’t get too excited or too panicky or anything like that,” Leona says.

“That’s kind of our Irish nature,” Lisa interrupts. “We kind of typically associate Americans with being a little more outgoing rather than what we’re used to back home. So maybe after a few more years here we might have changed drastically.”

The changes they’ve already undergone include acclimating to North Carolina’s summer heat and thick humidity, and to mosquito bites that swell noticeably on their fair skin. They have yet to encounter ticks potentially lurking in golf course roughs, a prospect scorned by Leona Maguire. “Try to stay out of the rough,” she declares, as if that’s easy.

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