KPMG Women's PGA Championship

Leona Maguire still sailing along at KPMG Women's PGA Championship

June 24, 2023


Jeff Babineau

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Leona Maguire, a winner last week on the LPGA, can make it back-to-back on Sunday at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club’s venerable Lower Course. The LPGA hasn’t seen a back-to-back winner since Jin Young Ko in 2021.

After finishing up a solid third round of 2-under 69 late Saturday afternoon, Maguire, who has taken time blossoming on the LPGA after a starry amateur career, said she doesn’t expect to change a thing for the final round. The key, she said, is “not making it any more than it is ... It’s one more round of golf.”

It is. And it isn’t. Sundays at majors can be funny beasts, and there’s little about winning one’s first major that is simple. Maguire leads Korea’s Jenny Shin (65) by one, and her good pal Stephanie Meadow, of Northern Ireland, by two. (Meadow shot 67). There will be the pressure of sleeping on her first 54-hole lead at a major. The heat of contention on Sunday at a major is just, well, different. And dangerous weather could be on its way, too, which moved up tee times, with players going off two tees in threesomes. (Maguire, Shin and Meadow tee off at 10:38 a.m. EDT.)

So there will be many hurdles to clear for the 28-year-old from County Cavan, who is ranked 12th in the world, to secure that first major. China’s Ruoning Yin, 20, whose ball-striking has been excellent all week (she hit 17 greens in regulation on Saturday), is three shots back, at 4-under 209, along with Lee-Anne Pace, the 42-year-old veteran from South Africa who has had a magical week. Pace hung in nicely on Saturday, shooting 70.

Also lurking are a pair of major champions in Japan’s Yuka Saso, who is trying to climb out of a poor run of play, and the No. 1 player in the women’s game, Korea’s Jin Young Ko. Saso, who posted a top-10 finish in her last start after a stretch of missed cuts, shot 69; Ko shot the same number, but did so in a rollercoaster of a round.

For starters, the usually mistake-free Ko made three bogeys in her first four holes, beginning her day with a tee shot into a ditch and ensuing penalty at the 440-yard opening hole. But she battled, as she does, and made six birdies from that point on, including four straight beginning at the 12th hole. There is a reason she is on the verge of setting a record for most weeks at No. 1 (158, not tied with Lorena Ochoa).

Ko prides herself on staying level despite any adversity that comes her way on the golf course. She exudes calm. Was she calm standing on that fifth tee at 3 over for the day?

“No,” Ko said, managing a smile. “A lot in my mind.”

Maguire played at Duke and has the record for most weeks atop the World Amateur Golf Ranking (135), winning three McCormack Medals. She has been on a heater these past few weeks. In addition to closing with a brilliant 64 last Sunday in Michigan at the Meijer, she owns eight consecutive rounds in the 60s.

She also has a bit of a wild card on her bag this week in Dermot Byrne, one of the famed brothers from a long line of professional caddies in Ireland. Byrne has caddied at Baltusrol in a major before, and has been a good presence on the bag. A week ago, he was asked what his role becomes when Maguire starts to get hot on the golf course.

“I get out of the way,” Byrne said. “She’s world-class.”

Adds Maguire, “He caddied for Shane Lowry for eight, nine years. So I think the biggest thing is he has given me the confidence. I think he has believed in me in times where I haven't believed in myself. He is just a really steady presence out there. I think he doesn't get too excited when things are going well, and he doesn't get too down when things aren't. I think we're quite similar in that regard.”

Jenny Shin is in her 13th year on the LPGA, a one-time winner who seems to be learning more about herself all the time. She said there was a time when she got out on the LPGA and was happy just to be there. Today she is hungrier to contend and win. Sunday will be a golden chance.

Shin said she learned how much she cared for golf when she could not play for eight months during Covid. She turned 30 in October, and is not sure how long she will keep competing on the LPGA, but knows this: In the time she does, she wants to leave a mark.

Shin was great on Saturday. Five birdies, no bogeys, and the day’s low round of. 66. Shin was asked if her elevated play was a result of working harder on her game. She paused and thought about that for a second.

“Smarter. Better. Better quality,” Shin said. “I mean, when does trying harder ever work, right? So, yeah, I think I am seeing things and doing things a little bit differently. And not to be so deep, but there's more purpose. Before golf was everything. Golf was life. Now it's just a job, which is quite surprising, and I love my job, and I want to, again, prove to myself that I can be really good at this job.”

Shin’s lone LPGA victory came at the 2016 Volunteers of America Texas Shootout. In 57 previous career majors, she has a pair of top-10s, including a sixth-place performance at the AIG Women’s Open in 2017 at Kingsbarns in Scotland.

Saturday, Shin appreciated where she was, and how special her round was becoming.

“It was exciting,” Shin said, asked her emotions as her name kept climbing up the leaderboard. “I've not been here in a while, so kind of freed me up a little bit. It was nice to see that I can do it, so good day.”

Maguire opened her third round with a one-shot lead and immediately stretched it with a great birdie at the Lower’s rugged 446-yard opening hole, where she hit hybrid in and converted the putt. Scoring was better on Saturday as expected rains stayed away. It quickly became hot and steamy, and the golf ball was flying.

For the third consecutive round, Maguire would make two bogeys, this time at the 11th and 17th holes. She answered with a birdie at the par-4 15th and closed with a two-putt birdie at the friendly 18th.

Sunday, Maguire takes a slim lead into the final day of a major for the first time. She says it will be treated as just another round, and just another day. Except that it likely will be anything but. Majors can be that way. Maguire, steely tough, looks forward to every bit of the experience.