They were clearly the two best players in Division I college golf in 2016-17, the numbers will tell you that. But they are also two players who have embraced college golf, one at a perennial power, the other at a program trying to reach for the top.
Last week, Duke’s Leona Maguire, the supremely talented native of Cavan, Ireland, received the ANNIKA Award presented by 3M and Mississippi’s Braden Thornberry of Olive Branch, Miss. received the Fred Haskins Award presented by Stifel.
Both could already be making plans to become professional golfers, Thornberry proving that point by finishing tied for fourth at last weekend’s FedEx St. Jude Classic, the PGA Tour stop at TPC Southwind in Memphis.
But they’ll be playing amateur golf this summer and returning to their respective college campuses in August, not just to play golf, but to be the face of their programs.
Maguire became the first player in the relatively brief history of the ANNIKA Award, named for Annika Sorenstam – the first name suffices for the award, obviously – the Hall of Famer who first burst onto the scene as a college standout at Arizona, for a second time. Maguire won the ANNIKA Award as a freshman in 2015.
“This award is a huge honor for me and to win it for a second time is a very special feeling,” Maguire told the Duke website. “To win an award that Annika has put her name to and that is voted on by my fellow coaches, competitors and the media. It is a very unique award and something I am very, very proud to get the opportunity to win again.”
It looked like Maguire was on the fast track toward the LPGA last fall. In the summer following her sophomore season at Duke, Maguire proudly represented Ireland all over the globe.
She led Great Britain & Ireland to a Curtis Cup victory over the United States at Dun Laoghaire Golf Club in suburban Dublin, she finished tied for 21st as golf returned to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and she fired a final-round 67 to help Ireland secure a bronze medal in the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Mexico, the first medal ever for her country in that event.
She also earned low amateur honors in the Richoh Women’s British Amateur, finishing tied for 25th at Woburn Golf & Country Club at 4-under 284.
But just as she appeared poised to forgo the last year-and-a-half of her career at Duke on the eve of the final stage of LPGA Qualifying School, Maguire pulled out, announcing that she intended to complete not only her junior year, but all of her senior year as well. She won’t turn pro until she’s finished in Durham next spring.
Making the decision to stay at Duke seemed to relieve Maguire and she went out and put together an historic season. Her 70.29 stroke average was the second-best in NCAA history behind only the 70.13 put together by the great Lorena Ochoa as a sophomore at Arizona in 2002. Maguire lowered the Duke record she had set as a freshman of 70.78.
She finished in the top five in eight of the Blue Devils’ 10 tournaments with three wins. One of those victories came in the ACC Championship at The Reserve Golf Club of Pawleys Island’s Beach Course in Pawleys Island, S.C. as she led Duke to the conference championship.
Duke, like several talented teams at the NCAA Championship, struggled in the dreadful weather that hit Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill. and was unable to earn a spot among the final eight teams that made it to match play.
But the weather didn’t seem to bother Maguire that much as she finished in a tie for second with ACC rival Jennifer Kupcho of Wake Forest in the individual standings just a shot behind national champion Monica Vaughn of Arizona State.
One of my favorite quotes of the year came from Duke head coach Dan Brooks following Maguire’s second-round 71 at Rich Harvest Farms.
“Leona can really play in this stuff,” Brooks said. “She is really a great player, has all the skills and I am not surprised she is up near the top.”
The No. 1 player in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, Maguire was also the choice of the Women’s Golf Coaches Association as its National Player of the Year.
The Fred Haskins Award, named for a teaching professional at The Country Club of Columbus (Ga.), is quite a bit older than the ANNIKA Award. It was first awarded to Texas phenom Ben Crenshaw in 1971, the first of three straight years the future two-time Masters champion would win the award.
As a sophomore, Thornberry won five events and led the nation in scoring average at 69.57.
He was at his best in the NCAA Championship at Rich Harvest Farms, opening with a 6-under 66 and adding rounds of 71, 69 and a final-round 71 for an 11-under 277 total that gave him a four-shot victory.
“It is an honor to win the Haskins Award,” Thornberry, who has rocketed up to fourth in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, told the Ole Miss website. “It validates all the hard work that I have put in with my teammates. We are changing the culture of the Old Miss golf program and are heading in the right direction.
“I can’t thank Coach (Chris) Mulloy and Coach (Kyle) Ellis enough for what they have done for me this year. It is an unbelievable feeling knowing my name will be alongside greats like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. This makes me even more excited for next season.”
A couple of days later Thornberry teed off in the PGA Tour’s FedEx St. Jude Classic and, with rounds of 71 and 69, made the cut. Not satisfied with just making the cut, though, Thornberry ripped off weekend rounds of 67 and 65 to finish tied for fourth at 8-under 272, the highest finish by an amateur in the FedEx St. Jude Classic since 1965.