By Jeff Babineau
BELMONT, Mich. – Leona Maguire is that pesky, persistent neighborhood teen who keeps pounding on your front door at the dinner hour, trying to convince you to purchase a full set of encyclopedias. At Blythefield Country Club, she simply will not go away, nor will she accept no for an answer.
Two years ago in Michigan, Maguire played great early, faded late, and finished second to Nelly Korda, who blistered the golf course (25-under 263) on her way to victory. Last year, Maguire quietly sneaked into the picture on Sunday, shooting 65 to close, then lost when she missed a short birdie putt on the second hole of a playoff to lose to Jennifer Kupcho.
Friday, Maguire, from Cavan, Ireland, was charging hard again, this time across the low-lying valley of the back nine as so many around her simply were grinding to make the cut. Maguire birdied four straight holes beginning at the 12th, and then got a bonus, holing out from the fringe for eagle-3 at the par-5 18th to put the finishing touches on a second-round, 7-under 65. It put her within a shot of tournament leader Ayaka Furue of Japan (67).
“I think I was just too far back on Sunday last year,” said Maguire, who broke through to win for the first time on the LPGA in early 2022. “Obviously had a really good Sunday, but was too far back. I kind of did the opposite of what I did the year before. I had a really good Thursday-Friday in ’21 and then ’22, I had a really good Sunday.
“So, trying to be a bit more consistent this year hopefully, and just put two more good rounds together over the weekend.”
The day began with a crowd at the top, and not much changed after 18 holes on another good day for scoring at Blythefield. Furue moved to 11-under 133, one shot better than a foursome of pursuers: Korea’s Hyo Joo Kim (who matched Maguire’s 65) and Amy Yang (69), Spain’s Carlota Ciganda (66), and Maguire. Twenty-five players are within five shots of Furue’s lead, and there is no reason for players to stop attacking a golf course yielding birdies over the weekend. Friday’s scoring average was 71.23.
The lead on the weekend should be hotly contested, and again, Maguire is right there.
Maguire, 28, started nicely this season, cooled for a spell, and has found some form of late. She was third in the Bank of Hope LPGA Match-Play in Las Vegas, and two weeks ago tied for seventh at the Mizuho Americas Open at Liberty National. Friday, Maguire offset a pair of bogeys – including a sloppy one at the par-5 10th hole – with seven birdies and an eagle. In her four-birdie sprint that began at the 12th, the longest putt was a 10-footer at No. 15.
“I think it’s just steadily been getting better and better,” Maguire said of her game. “Saw my coach (Shane O’Grady) last week down in Orlando. Came over for a few days, so we were just kind of fine-tuning.
“There is no major changes needed. I drove the ball really, really well yesterday; not quite as well today. Yeah, you just need to be doing everything solid around here, which is nice prep going into a major next week.”
Furue, 23, also arrived to Michigan in strong form, too. She is not a long hitter (she ranks 142nd on tour, averaging 247.3 yards) but is highly accurate, hitting 86 percent of her fairways. At Blythefield, all the players in the field can get to a majority of the par-5 holes, or at least get shots up around the putting surfaces. Furue birdied three of the par-5 holes on Friday.
In between a pair of fourth-place finishes, she lost in the championship match of the Match-Play. In two rounds at Blythefield, Furue, who dresses in bright, vibrant colors, has only a single bogey. On Friday, she was bogey-free. Her clean card was threatened at the par-4 third hole, where she had to escape a fairway bunker, eventually making a 20-footer for par.
“It was my impressive one,” Furue said of the par save.
Minjee Lee, last year’s U.S. Women’s Open champion, made a nice move up the board with her 67, a round that included a pair of “soft” bogeys in her opening three holes. She rebounded with a birdie at the fourth hole, and was fine after that.
Lee’s round included an eagle at the par-5 eighth, where she hit 6-iron to 14 feet. Ciganda made eagle at the eighth, too. Difference was, a few holes earlier she also made eagle-3 at the par-5 fourth. It was the second time in as many years that the long-hitting Ciganda made two eagles in a single round at Blythefield.
Friday’s cut fell at 2-under 142, and claimed some of the field’s bigger names. Not playing on the weekend: Charley Hull (72 on Friday), Lexi Thompson (74), Lydia Ko (72), Stacy Lewis (74) and In-Gee Chun (70). Brooke Henderson, a two-time winner at Blythefield, struggled on Friday but birdied her final hole to earn her way into the weekend.
The weekend forecast at Blythefield calls for more of the same as far as scoring. Birdies with a chance of scattered eagles. Going low is the mantra. Maguire will be one to watch, knocking on that door as persistently as she ever has.