ANTRIM, Northern Ireland — Pop your head into any golf shop along the northwest coast of Ireland and you’re sure to gather in a healthy dose of Leona Maguire, one of the nation’s greatest golf products.
Posters of the 28-year-old appear with as much frequency as Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City or Steph Curry in the Bay area. Maguire is on the cover of the most recent Irish Golfer magazine, smiling while standing between the words “Leona: That winning feeling,” marking the second time in the publication’s last 20 issues that she’s graced the front page.
In this emerald paradise, her star couldn’t be shining much brighter.
She’s not alone. While the island that encompasses the countries of Ireland and Northern Ireland has long produced male golf superstars, female pros have not enjoyed the same level of success until now.
The former Duke player dominated the amateur game and held the No. 1 ranking for 135 weeks, a record that was broken by Rose Zhang. In 2022, Maguire became the first Irishwoman to win on the LPGA at the Drive On Championship.
Others have followed suit. At this week’s ISPS Handa World Invitational presented by Aviv Clinics at Galgorm Castle Golf Club and Castlerock Golf Club outside Belfast, Maguire is joined by Stephanie Meadow, Olivia Mehaffey and Jessica Ross, who all hail from Northern Ireland.
It signals a high-water mark in women’s golf for the region, one that even the players have taken notice of.
“It’s amazing. I think when I was a little girl I looked up to the guys,” said Mehaffey, an Arizona State product who plays on the Ladies European Tour. “We always had so many great male players. Didn’t maybe have as much on the women’s side. Obviously, Leona and Steph are kind of breaking down a lot of barriers. I am coming in behind them. There are a lot of girls in college. It’s getting really strong. It’s nice to see the women follow in the men’s footsteps.
“So I think it’s exciting and Irish golf is a good place. I think it’s only going to get better, and I think events like this and also for us having the Irish Open back on the schedule I think it’s great. I believe that we’re in a good spot. It’s just going to keep getting better.”
Unfortunately, this event, which showcases LPGA, LET and DP World Tour players, will be short-lived. The DP World Tour released its 2024 schedule earlier this week and the ISPS Handa wasn’t included. Organizers told BBC Sport there are plans for another big event in the region, but the mixed format – in which male and female players compete for the same size purse – will not be extended.
Still, the sunsetting of the tournament hasn’t dampened the spirits of those in this week’s field. Maguire, for example, is eager to play again just two hours from her home of Cavan. She says she loves the support, even if it’s a bit overwhelming at times.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it pressure. I think the Irish fans are fantastic to come out and support their own, whether it’s golf or whether it’s Women’s World Cup a few weeks ago or whatever it is,” Maguire said. “I think it’s always nice to have people wishing you well and rooting you on and wanting to see you do well. You can call it pressure, but either way, you want to do as well as you can every week, and this week is really no different.
“It’s nice to have that sort of extra support there when you hit a good shot and things like that. Yeah, it’s just a little bit of an extra incentive to do better this week.”
If Maguire does find that extra incentive, the field best beware. She’s missed just one cut in 14 starts this year and has posted five top-10 finishes, including a win at the Meijer LPGA Classic. Using a white-hot putter of late, she’ll be looking to improve on last year’s 10th-place finish, and would be the perfect final winner during the event’s swan song.
Meadow, meanwhile, will be looking to rekindle the magic she displayed in 2019 when she won the event. The tournament is played at two courses through the opening two rounds with men’s groups and women’s groups alternating. After the cut, the final two rounds will all be played at Galgorm.
The win in 2019 was an extra special one for Meadow, as she had her husband on the bag.
“I mean, that was such an amazing memory to have all my friends and family here,” said Meadow, who is a member at nearby Ballyclare Golf Club as well as Royal Portrush. “To do it at a golf course where I took lessons up on the range there when I was 10 years old, I mean, talk about a transformation. Obviously, a super special memory and I’m excited to be back here again.”