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Reaching The Top Of The World

Carolina to Copenhagen, Finland to Fanore. Sometimes Declan Maguire wakes with his family in a strange hotel and, you suspect, scratches his head in wonderment at how the sport of golf has brought two teenage girls from west Cavan all over the world.

Hope and history briefly rhymed when Sean Quinn - a man in the news a lot at the moment - had the foresight in 1989 to construct a world class golf course from a small, wet corner of "rock and rushes and fields". A few years later, Lisa and Leona took up the sport as a pair of eager nine-year-olds, all goofy swings and giddy strokes, and something magical was born.

Within a few months it became clear that the twins had talent to burn and, more importantly, a fierce hunger for success which belied their age.

At age 11, Lisa won the World Under-12 Championship by 5 shots at Pinehurst with rounds of 68, 68 and 65. Leona was a very creditable third. Sandwiched between them was the American, Julie Yang, the favourite with 55 championships to her credit. Since then, have reached the top of the ladies amateur game, competing in the prestigious Solheim Cup, and have beaten the best of Britain already.

Their performances have taken Irish, and international, golf by storm. Lisa and Leona have carried the flag at the Ryder Cup where they rubbed shoulders with Tiger Woods ("a nice guy" says Declan) and Padraig Harrington among others.

Spanish superstar Sergio Garcia posed for photos and wrestled with the twins' eight-year-old brother - and budding golfer - Odhran. This isn't the usual childhood for two 15-year-old sisters from Cavan, but, then again, these aren't two ordinary kids. Lisa and Leona could just be the most talented young sportswomen in the world.

While their success, at their age, is unprecedented, the sporting public, in this county at least, often fail to appreciate the amazing standard at which these girls operate.

"Last Monday evening we finished in Paris," recalls their father.

"Because there was no live coverage on television or anything like that, people may not realise the competition that was in it. They played unbelievable golf. The Norwegian girl who Leona played in the final is 19 years old and attends a top university in America.

"She hit four birdies in a row at the start but to Leona's credit she stayed calm, didn't panic, she stuck with it and bit by bit she started pulling it back. Even then when she had pulled back, the girl birdied the 17th but Leona had the strength of character to come back on the 18th and finish it."

Declan and his wife Breda accompany their daughters and Odhran around the world during the school holidays to take on the best they can find. So far, they have passed each test and still they continue to strive to improve, working on their game, thinking and, more often than not, winning.

While their father is coy about goal-setting, Lisa and Leona themselves ooze confidence. What's your ambition in the sport, you ask.

"Just to keep playing as well as we can and at 18, if we're good enough to tun pro, go off to America," says Leona in the off-hand way most of us would propose a walk to the local shop.

"We'll try to get over there and see how far we can get."

The odds against one child dominating an ultra-completive, sometimes-insular sport like golf are high, but for two sisters to do it is unthinkable. For the girls to come from a small border town nestled among the mountains and crags of west Cavan is truly amazing and a huge source of pride for the area, not to mention their family.

Leona's recent win in St Cloud is a case in point.

"It was very proud for us," says Declan.

"A brother of mine was with us and Lisa caddied for Leona on the day and it was a tremendous satisfaction, not just for us but for the Slieve Russell club here, Ballyconnell where I grew up, all the people who know us, all our friends and family and everybody in Cavan. It's great to be in a position... there's so much doom and gloom in the country, I'd like to think that people would look to the positives. If the girls don't perform well, we don't look for any negatives, we always look to see what was good out of it."

Small town Ireland, and small town Cavan even more so, hasn't traditionally produced many international athletes. Catherina McKiernan did it in athletics, Paul Brady is doing it in handball but the sense is that Lisa and Leona Maguire have the potential to be the most successful of the lot.

All has changed, and changed utterly, from the dark days of the past.

"We played football, on the road, we had a pitch and we togged out on the side of the ditch," says Declan of his childhood in Ballyconnell.

"Later on when you got to 14 or 15 you could play pool in McKenna's Shop in Ballyconnell. And that basically was it in this area. I'm from a big family, most of my older brothers and sisters had to leave this area to get work. Luckily enough the younger members of the family were able to stay in this area and found work here and it's all thanks to Sean Quinn."

The Quinn saga has been a long-player on the airwaves and in the press in recent days. Feelings are running high in this county and much comment has been passed on the glee with which sections of the national media seem to have reported on the group's troubles.

In west Cavan, however, Quinn has given hope and Declan Maguire is keen to reiterate the fact.

"Sean Quinn is a man of the people. Some sections of the media have tried to portray him as being arrogant, Sean Quinn is not an arrogant man - they don't know the real Sean Quinn," he says.

"Being in the area, living in the area, I know what Sean Quinn has done for this region. He is an honest man and he should be given time. He's in business 37 years, he's not one of these come-day, go-day, fly-by-night characters, he is proven, tested. He does things his own way but he is proven and successful. The girls do things their own way on the golf course as well and sometimes people may not always like it but that's what's needed. The girls have so far done really well, and a lot of that is down to what we have here and that's down to Sean Quinn."

What's striking about meeting the girls is their polite manner and cool demeanour. While they are grounded, they possess that tangible, certain sense of confidence that all sportspeople have. They are hard workers, says their father, on and off the course. and that could well be their greatest strength of all.

One final question, you ask, hoping to elicit a laugh. Do you ever fight, girls?

"We get on quite well together except for when we're playing each other in a final, there'd be a lot of competition," smiles Leona.

The way they are going, they'll have to get used to facing each other in a lot more finals in the future.

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