SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – A rainy, cold Friday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship on Baltusrol’s Lower Course was one of those days to keep the grips dry, protect and persevere. Golf can be like that some days. You take what it gives you. On Friday, Baltusrol gave very little.
Ireland’s Leona Maguire knew every bit of this, and she just kept on with the good fight. She likes to say that her tiny country “punches well above its weight” when it comes to golf – what, with producing major winners such as Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry – and now it seems Maguire, at 28, is ready to stand up and be recognized as a major champion, too.
She is halfway there after a second-round, 3-under 68, making four birdies over her final six holes to reach 5-under 137 at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship’s midway point. Coming off a victory in Michigan last week at a tournament (Meijer LPGA Classic) where players must pile up the birdies, Maguire has deftly switched gears to hitting fairways and greens and a sinking a few timely birdies to keep pushing forward.
A trio of players sit at 4-under 138, one shot back. It includes England’s Mel Reid (67), China’s Xiyu Lin (71) and Celine Borge (69), an LPGA rookie from Norway who was playing the Epson Tour last year. Two dangerous players lurking as the tournament heads to the weekend are last year’s KPMG Women's PGA Championship runner-up and U.S. Women’s Open champion, Minjee Lee of Australia, and World No. 1 Jin Young Ko, of Korea. Lee, who shot 67, tying the day’s low round, is two shots out of the lead, with Ko (69) only four back.
“Obviously, had a really nice day today,” Lee said, “and I'm hoping that the momentum carries on into the weekend.
Maguire’s game plan thus far at Baltusrol has been masterful.
“Very different mentality, different mindset,” Maguire said of chasing back-to-back wins on different style venues, trying to become the first player since Ko in 2021 to win consecutive starts. “Feel like my game has sort of taken over from last week. I'm very comfortable with how I'm hitting it, picking my targets, and committing to those.
“I think the big thing today was staying really patient given that we were in a two (her group’s third player, Austin Ernst, withdrew with a neck injury), jam-packed in a field that wasn't really moving. Did a good job at sort of staying ... concentrating, and sort of (keeping) warm when I needed to. It kind of kept the momentum going.”
Maguire, who began her day on the 10th tee on a gray afternoon that made her feel as if she were home in County Cavan, built that momentum with closing birdies at the fourth, sixth, seventh and ninth holes, The seventh, a short par 5, gives up birdies. Those other holes, you have to earn them. The fourth is a par 3 measuring 166 yards, she made a curling 20-footer at the sixth, and she reached the green at the 175-yard ninth with a hybrid, canning an 8-footer.
When Maguire walks the fairways at tournaments, she carries a certain clenched-jaw intensity and purpose. She showed it on Sunday at the Meijer, where she started slowly and closed with 64, and Friday at Baltusrol it was there again. A little rain wasn’t about to slow her from what she needed to do.
Being from Ireland, she must love the rain, right?
“I don't think anyone looks out the window and sees it's raining and thinks, ‘Geez, I can't wait to go out there today,’” said Maguire, a former World No. 1 amateur who is chasing after her third LPGA triumph. “Yeah, it's second nature. I've grown up in it. Most of the time at home if you wait for a dry day, you're not going to play golf very often. It doesn't bother me.”
That’s good. There is more precipitation on the way.
Also staying in reach were first-round leader Lee-Anne Pace of South Africa, who opened up a three-shot lead at one point before running into three bogeys down the stretch, and China’s Lin. Lin hasn’t won yet on the LPGA, but has shown recent signs that she is ready to. A level-par round of 71 was good enough to push her to 4-under 138. She tied for third last week at the Meijer.
Right behind her is Pace, who is making only her second start on the LPGA this season. (She plays mostly on the Ladies European Tour these days.) Pace is 42, and owns one LPGA victory, winning the rain-shortened Blue Bay LPGA in China in 2014. She has won 11 times in Europe. Though she is playing mostly near home and in Europe, she does like coming to America to see friends and test her game.
Pace, who started on the LPGA in 2007, before many in this KPMG Women's PGA Championship field even were born, flew to New Jersey three weeks ago to play the ShopRite LPGA Classic, played well enough (T-30) to get into this week’s field, and spent last week lounging in the vacant Florida home of her South African pal, Ashleigh Buhai (won won ShopRite). Apparently, Buhai’s second LPGA victory was inspiring to Pace. She spent her time in Florida practicing hard.
She has handled Baltusrol rather effectively over two days (66-73).
She makes it sound as if this all started out as a summer holiday, but now Baltusrol has her attention. She, like Maguire, Lin, Borge and Reid, is competing to win a first major.
“Yeah, a massive bonus, definitely,” Pace said. “It's nice to be here, obviously, come and visit everybody, and I'm in a good spot and a good position. I'm definitely thinking about the win. There's no way I'm not.”
How tough was Baltusrol’s Lower Course? Those at 5-over 147 and better made the cut into the weekend, a group that included Lexi Thompson, who made her way to Saturday with four consecutive birdies late in her second nine to shoot 70 and climb to 4 over. With nothing to lose, she said she just started firing at flagsticks. Lydia Ko, World No. 3, made the cut on the number. Brooke Henderson made only one birdie, but is 1 under through 36 holes and tied for eighth. Certainly in the mix. World No. 2 Nelly Korda, returning from a back injury, made 12 bogeys and a double over two days, and packed her things after rounds of 76-77.
More rain is forecast for the weekend. Not exactly what Maguire is looking and hoping for, but then again, she’s learned to make the most of it. Thirty-six holes to play, and rain or not, she plans to keep punching as hard as she can.