Sixty Irish golfers played for world ranking points on professional tours worldwide in 2021, but while Rory McIlroy won twice and contended for a major, winning nearly 40pc of the total cash they earned, Leona Maguire was, arguably, the standout star.
he Cavan phenomenon, who celebrated her 27th birthday at the end of November, might not have won an event on the LPGA Tour, but in finishing second in the rookie of the year stakes to a major winner and producing an incredible, match-winning performance on her Solheim Cup debut, she’s one of the hottest properties in women’s golf.
The Ballyconnell star not only took her career earnings beyond $1 million (€884k), but she also took her game to new heights, by adding nearly 13 yards to her average drive (255 yards) and increasing her greens in regulation percentage from 60 to 74 per cent.
Had she putted as well as she did in 2020 – she fell from first to 21st this term – we would almost certainly be talking about the first Irish player to win on the LPGA Tour.
Living up to expectations will be tough for Leona in 2021, but that’s something McIlroy still struggles with, admitting he’s his own biggest critic, as he showed with his tearful interview after the Ryder Cup and his shirt-ripping reaction to losing his head after a bad break in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
“Yeah, there’s been a few ups and downs,” said McIlroy, whose season would represent a good year for most mere mortals were it not for him missing the cut in the Players and the Masters, and finishing outside the top 45 in the PGA Championship and The Open.
“Obviously, there was a stretch during the year where I didn’t feel like I was playing my best and went on a different path – in terms of sort of looking for answers. I feel like I’m certainly a wiser player than I was maybe nine months ago.”
As for the rest of the Irish, Seamus Power’s PGA Tour breakthrough was an example for every Irish player battling his way through the mini-tours, just as the Waterford man did a decade ago.
Power is now the third-highest ranked Irishman in the world, and the top 50 beckons in 2022.
He wasn’t the only 30-something to hit top gear in 2021 as Clandeboye’s Jonathan Caldwell (37) won on the European Tour, and slow-burner Niall Kearney (33) played brilliantly to grab a foothold on what is now the DP World Tour.
As for the next generation, Kinsale’s John Murphy stormed onto the scene in the summer, but while the likes of Dermot McElroy and David Carey look close to stepping up in class, 2022 will be a key year for Cormac Sharvin, Gavin Moynihan and Paul Dunne after forgettable seasons.