Nichols: Leona Maguire’s decision to complete college was wise choice

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Nichols: Leona Maguire’s decision to complete college was wise choice

LPGA Tour

Nichols: Leona Maguire’s decision to complete college was wise choice

(Editor’s note: This story appeared in the June 2018 issue of Golfweek Magazine. Leona Maguire and her twin, Lisa, will both compete in this week’s ShopRite LPGA Classic.)

STILLWATER, Okla. – At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Lydia Ko peppered Leona Maguire with questions about college. Ko showed so much interest in her time at Duke that Maguire, a two-time national player of the year, felt bad for the two-time major winner. Ko, a 15-time winner on the LPGA and longtime No. 1, is actually pursuing the same psychology degree at Korea University from the road that Maguire recently obtained from Duke. In the time that Maguire spent studying in Durham, Ko has amassed nearly $9 million in earnings on the LPGA.

The experiences Ko inquired about, however, money can’t buy.

“I’ve always said that coming to Duke was the best decision I ever made,” said Maguire, “and staying at Duke was the best decision.”

College grads winning on the LPGA isn’t unicorn rare, but it’s alarmingly unusual. Not a single player in the top 10 of the Rolex Rankings played college golf. Only five players in the top 50 stayed four years, and 14 in the top 100. Over the past 20 years, only 10 four-year college players have won LPGA majors.

Given Maguire’s early success as a junior and longevity atop the world amateur rankings (a record 135 weeks), her prospects at the next level are strong. She’s long enough (averaging 265 yards off the tee), a terrific ballstriker and an improved putter. Most importantly, she’s consistent.

There’s no one-size-fits-all path for aspiring pros, but whatever happens next, Maguire, 23, made the right the call in skipping the final stage of LPGA Q-School not once, but twice.

Why? Because her college experience was, by all accounts, incredible. She genuinely loved everything about it, from sharing a room with twin sister Lisa for four years, to basketball games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, to sunset ice cream at Maple View Farm.

She honored a commitment and built a foundation that will serve her well when life gets tough and lonely at the next level – and it will.

“I don’t half-do things,” Maguire said. “I think leaving early there would’ve always been a part of me wondering what-if. I think Sunday, walking at graduation, I kind of realized that this is where I’m supposed to be.”

Amanda Blumenherst stood off to the side of the 18th green at the NCAA Championship that ended May 23, notebook in hand. Now a mother of two, Blumenherst was at Karsten Creek working for Golf Channel. The first to be named NCAA Player of the Year three times, Blumenherst retired from the LPGA winless in 2013, four years after she graduated from college.

Blumenherst said her family never even so much as joked about leaving Duke early. The LPGA schedule was so lean during that time anyway, it would’ve been hard to keep a card.

“I don’t see how going early would’ve changed my professional outcome,” she said.

Blumenherst believes Maguire’s even-keel demeanor will serve her well at the next level. The petite player from Ireland finished her Duke career with a 70.97 scoring average, the best among four-year players in NCAA history. Her 87 rounds of even or under par and 32 rounds in the 60s also set an NCAA record.

“Leona is an extremely hard worker,” Duke coach Dan Brooks said. “There has not been a point in her time at Duke that that has faltered at all – every bit of her time here has been complete dedication.”

The Maguire twins sat down with Golfweek as freshmen at the 2015 NCAA Championship in Bradenton, Fla. Their pale Irish skin was red from the sun and mosquito bites, and this writer couldn’t tell one from the other. Four years later, they sat together on a bench in front the clubhouse at Karsten Creek wiser about so many things, including skin protection.

Whatever ways they changed in appearance at Duke, they did it in sync, as I once again failed the pre-interview I.D. test. But Leona was undoubtedly more talkative and sure of herself in this setting than she’d been before.

Lisa is 15 minutes older than Leona. “Fifteen minutes and a cup of coffee,” as mom Breda likes to say. (She actually had a cup of coffee in between the deliveries.) The sisters were close from the start.

“They rarely fell out,” Breda said. “They had a bond … to some degree that even as a parent I was envious of.”

Leona makes her professional debut at the ShopRite LPGA Classic on June 8-10 in Galloway, N.J., and then grind on the Symetra Tour. Lisa’s path isn’t as certain, but they’ll have the same management team and sponsors as professionals and make Scottsdale, Ariz., their new American base.

The twins say college has prepared them to move on as individuals. While Leona enjoyed a decorated college career, Duke was hard for Lisa.

“It’s been like a little microcosm of life,” she said. “I think I’ve learned to take the good with the bad.”

Blumenherst’s husband, Nate Freiman, recently retired from a career in professional baseball and plans to return to Duke for post-graduate work. So many of their 30-something baseball friends are back in school finishing their undergrad degrees, studying with 18-year-olds.

Maguire didn’t want that.

The first time their father, Declan, laid eyes on Duke’s campus was at graduation. It’s costly flying overseas, and the Maguires, both educators, felt their money was better spent bringing the girls home for holidays and summer breaks. Declan was over the moon about the place, and his enthusiasm only furthered Leona’s belief that she’d made the right call.

“Someone asked me a couple weeks ago what I’m going to miss the most about Duke,” said Leona, “and it’s the people.”

A season of life for which there is no price tag. Gwk

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