Leona Maguire thrives in star pairing for 62 to lead LPGA

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Leona Maguire putts during the first round of the LPGA Pelican Women’s Championship golf tournament at Pelican Golf Club, Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, in Belleair, Fla. (Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

BELLEAIR, Fla. (AP) — Solheim Cup star Leona Maguire thrived in a star grouping Thursday with an 8-under 62 for a two-shot lead over defending champion Sei Young Kim in the Pelican Women’s Championship.

Maguire played alongside Kim and Lexi Thompson. No one in the group made bogey at Pelican Golf Club on a day ideal for scoring.

Maguire is still trying to become Ireland’s first winner on the LPGA Tour. Her best result is a runner-up finish at tournaments in Michigan and Hawaii this year.

For now, she happily is best known for going unbeaten in five matches to lead Europe to a Solheim Cup victory two months ago.

Maguire put on a clinic by hitting every fairway and taking only 24 putts.

“It was just really, really solid,” she said. “Hit a lot of greens gave myself a lot of chances and rolled in some nice putts. … Yeah, it’s all just clicking nicely.”

It helped to have her coach, Shane O’Grady, with her for the week. It’s the first time he has watched her play in person since she was on her way to getting an LPGA Tour card at the end of 2019. O’Grady has been grounded in Ireland by COVID-19 since then.

Kim, who won by three shots last year in the inaugural event, opened with three straight birdies until cooling slightly, staying in range of Maguire with an eagle on the par-5 14th.

“I didn’t check the leaderboard so I thought because my group really play well, I expect everyone play good,” Kim said. “I check the leaderboard, and, yeah, our group just really played well. So, yeah we all feed (off) each other really.”

Thompson was in the large group at 65 that included Nelly Korda, who returned to No. 1 in the women’s world ranking this week and is competing on the LPGA Tour for only the second time since a rough Solheim Cup showing.

The group at 65 also included Lauren Coughlin, among the last to get into the field, Nasa Hataoka and former Women’s PGA champion Danielle Kang.

Jin Young Ko, with a narrow lead over Korda in the points race for LPGA player of the year, was slowed by a pair of bogeys after making the turn and had to settle for a 68.

Fifty players from the 108-player field broke par.

This is the final tournament for the top 60 in the Race to the CME Globe to qualify for the CME Group Tour Championship next week down the Gulf Coast in Naples, where all 60 players will have a shot at the $1.5 million prize.

Ko has a narrow lead over Korda, though that’s irrelevant when it comes to the points race since everyone will start even next week.

Maguire is a lock for next week, too, though her concern is getting her first LPGA Tour victory. No telling what her Irish town will do for her when that happens. After the Solheim Cup, she was driven through the streets of her one-stoplight town in a gold BMW with her name on the license plate.

“It was basically like St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland,” she said. “I guess it timed nicely with the COVID restrictions lifting. I think for me, the best part was seeing people happy and excited again. I brought a smile and joy to so many people.”

Lydia Ko opened with a 67, a big step toward wrapping up the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average. Ko, Korda and Inbee Park have lower averages but will not meet the minimum requirement of 70 rounds. Ko’s next challenger is In Gee Chun, who had a 74.

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