‘Leona... she’s one of our own’
Memories of when the young Cavan star arrived at the Slieve Russell last week
The scenes greeting golfer Leona Maguire, chauffeured waving from an open-top car, bring to mind how sport often means more than what occurs on the putting greens, pitches or parquets.
As the young Cavan star arrived at the Slieve Russell last Thursday evening for a more formal celebration of her Solheim Cup success, rounds of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ ricocheted loudly from bunker to manicured fairway and back again. Waving tricolours took up almost every inch of available space as the Solheim unofficial MVP was protectively hurried through volleys of Covid-friendly fist and elbow bumps to a podium where she addressed the hundreds gathered to welcome her home.
Gleeful children, desperate to catch an up-close glimpse of Leona, punctuated the flash of cameras as equally anxious to capture this newly coroneted sporting hero for the next day’s back pages.
Draped still in her European Solheim colours, Leona coyly cast a glance across the maul on the hotel’s lawn, appearing almost embarrassed by the fuss and fanfare in her honour.
Not since she and twin sister Lisa, then still amateurs, returned from the Rio Olympics in 2016 had there been such a reception. A much smaller celebration event welcomed Leona when she claimed her first professional golf win at The Windsor Classic, Sonoma County in 2019.
But none came close in magnitude to that witnessed last Wednesday, as the weather held up and bold orange hues streaked the sky almost as if in Leona’s honour.
After a red-eye flight back across the Atlantic, Leona appeared in Ballyconnell caddying only a handful of hours sleep. But the scenes embracing her were exhilarating.
It spoke much of the difficulties the county has overcome this past 18 months. After repeated lockdowns, months of fearing figures, aside from Cavan’s Ulster Championship win, finally this was something to celebrate.
It was a resounding endorsement too of how, as a community, a county, and a country, a love of sport, and a win against perceivable odds, permeates to the bone.
Leona (26), after all, rewrote the record books with her series of awe-inspiring performances at the 17th edition of the Solheim Cup in Toledo.
The secret, if ever it was one in the first place, that Cavan’s Leona is a star, is certainly now out, and on a global scale.
Not only did she become Ireland’s first-ever Solheim Cup player, chosen as a ‘Wildcard’ by Europe’s captain Catriona Matthew, but she did it in style too. The Irishwoman’s shot-making brilliance, over an unprecedented five matches, confirmed her status as the best tournament rookie of all time. Her Singles win on the final day, making short work of her previously unbeaten former college rival Jennifer Kupcho (5&4), was the pick of the bunch, capping an individual haul of 4.5 points from a maximum possible five. It was an incredible achievement for Leona, who has built steadily on an already impressive 2021, including her brave performances in sapping conditions at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, tying 23rd on -5.
If she suffered “nerves”, while watched by millions worldwide in Ohio, walled by a partisan crowd baying for her to slip-up, Leona wasn’t telling.
“These are the moments you practice for. We knew it was going to be tough, especially going out against the Korda sisters that first morning. But that’s a pairing [she and Mel Reid] wanted,” Leona told The Anglo-Celt. “To be the best, you have to beat the best. We had nothing to lose.”
The feeling of that first tee off, which she struck straight as a die, was “electric”.
Leona meanwhile was found “lost for words” when describing her feelings to the welcome received on home turf.
“Cavan people are very proud people, and it’s nice to come back and share this with them.”
One of the most endearing images, aside from her iconic fist-pumping after holing an eight-foot putt for victory in the foursomes, was that of her embracing sister Lisa after vanquishing Kupcho. “It was fantastic to share that experience with [Lisa],” she said of that sisterly bond. “She walked round with me, was there every day cheering me on. We played two junior Solheims together, so even though she wasn’t on this team, it felt that way.”
Since Europe’s win, and Leona’s individual heroics, her phone has hopped non-stop with messages from everyone from fellow professionals to school friends she hasn’t spoken with since her days in the maroon of Loreto College.
Dad Declan believes his daughter can now inspire the next generation of young golfers coming through, in the same way he feels Leona was inspired when the family brought their daughters to see Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods et al play 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club.
“Especially young girls, because we have the Rory McIlroy’s and the Shane Lowry’s, maybe now they’ll have Leona to look up to.”
The thought makes an already emotional Declan swell with pride, and he says the surrounding celebrations have been “memorable”.
“This really has been something special. After all that has happened, after all people have been through, I think we needed this,” says Declan.
Declan’s mum Kathleen, who alongside wife Breda’s mum Marian, are among Leona’s biggest fans, lauded her granddaughter as a “true star”.
The Solheim win, and the festivities since, including riding front-seat in the cavalcade through Ballyconnell town has “been a tonic” she admits, having been kept to only seeing her family from a distance all through lockdown.
Kathleen, a local correspondent with the Celt for 46 years, says she’s never as proud as when she sees Leona featured in the local paper.
“A crowd as thick as the grass. It’s astonishing to see. But she deserves it. She’s a great girl. We’ll have more days out no doubt.”
Leona’s little brother Odhrán, a more than capable golfer in his own right, now about to start studying at Trinity, reveals how he has always looked up to his big sisters.
“I idolised the girls growing up. From about of seven or eight I’d be going to tournaments, so to see Leona now playing as she did on TV, it’s been incredible to watch.”
Laura Brown, who works at the Slieve Russell, and is a regular playing partner for either Maguire sister when they take on the 18 holes of the PGA National Slieve Russell course says: “She’s one of our own. She’s a girl from Ballyconnell, and proud to be from Cavan. This is who she is. It’s amazing to see her play on the biggest stage, but knowing her, no one here ever doubted it.”
First of Many
As always, Leona took time to thank those who have helped her along the way, both on and off the course- from her Solheim Cup teammates to family, her dedicated team of coaches and the Quinn family - without whom she said there wouldn’t be a venue like the Slieve Russell in that part of the world.
Destined for Korea and Japan in the coming weeks, Covid depending, and the US as the winter progresses, the former amateur number one, who slipped seamlessly into the professional ranks is, for now, currently listed 43rd in the world.
“It really does take a village,” she said. “I’m incredibly lucky to have the team that I have around me. Hopefully this is the first of many Solheim Cups and hopefully we can have more homecomings like this in the future.”