Leona Maguire has a chance to claim her first win as a professional at the IOA Championship in California today and give herself the perfect platform to graduate to the LPGA Tour.
Twelve months ago, her former Ireland teammate Stephanie Meadow won this event in a playoff at Morongo Golf Club at Tukwet Canyon and went on to claim one of ten LPGA Tour cards when she finished sixth in the Symetra Tour's Volvik Race for the Card to secure her return to the big time.
Maguire (24) was still at Duke University and would not turn professional until last June.
As a result, she had just half a season on the Symetra Tour to at least make it to the LPGA Tour's Q-Series. But while she ended up missing out on a trip to Q-School, finishing 37th on the money list, the overall trend is positive, and she has racked up 11 top-20 finishes (and three top-fives) from 20 professional starts worldwide - not including a top 5 at the Ladies European Tour Q-School last December.
After an early season sojourn to Australia, where she played the LPGA Tour’s Vic Open and missed the 54-hole cut, she then forged a pair of top-20s on the LET, returned to the Symetra Tour and followed a jet-lagged share of 25th in the SKYiGolf Championship with a T5 in the Florida's Natural Charity Classic last week.
She now has a chance to put a considerable dent in her bid for one of ten LPGA Tour cards this year after she followed an opening 68 with a bogey-free, three-under 69 to lead by one stroke from American pair Jillian Hollis and Amy Lee and Israel's Laetitia Beck on seven-under-par.
"This year I have a little bit more time, can plan out my schedule," said the world No. 317, who is 12th in the money list after two starts.
"Last year was such a quick turnaround between graduating to finishing up with Nationals then going straight to playing tournaments.
"It was all quick and kind of chasing myself all year didn’t — I really get a chance for a proper break. This year it should work out nicely.
"I’ve had more patience, was maybe a little impatient coming out of the blocks halfway through last season because I knew I had a lot of ground to catch up.
"It’s nice to be starting this year on an even platform with everybody else."
Like Meadow last year, she's thriving at Morongo Golf Club, where hitting fairways is critical.
“We played a lot of junior golf together, on Irish teams growing up and a lot of the same courses," said Leona, who has made ten birdies so far. "I would say our games are quite similar, so it’s not exactly shocking that I’ve played well at a course she’s played well at.
"This isn’t necessarily a typical course you get in Ireland, maybe as lush and green as it is though.
"I think this is a tough golf course; you have to drive the ball well because that rough is thick out there. There are some long holes and the wind today made it a different golf course, right back into the wind made some really long."
Meadow slips back
Meadow, meanwhile, slipped back at the LPGA Tour's Kia Classic, which is being played just 80 miles south of Morongo at Aviara Golf Club near Carlsbad.
Tied for ninth at halfway after rounds of 67 and 72, five shots off the lead, she added a two-over 74 in last night's fourth round and is now tied 35th on three-under, 11 strokes behind leader Inbee Park.
Meadow is hoping to make the top 15 non-exempt players seeking spots in the opening LPGA Major of the year next week, the ANA Inspiration, and will likely need a sub-70 score to keep that hope alive.
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