Maggie Whitehead – In the spotlight

Six years on from her first national tournament win, 15-year-old Maggie Whitehead continues to climb the golfing ladder at remarkable speed, and she’s enjoying every step

At the age of just 15, Maggie Whitehead has become one of the North East’s stand out players on the national tournament scene – a position she built upon further shortly after we caught up with victory in the English Girls U16 Open Championship at Morecambe.

Maggie first appeared in Northern Golfer six years ago, shortly after she won her first national event – the US Kids Golf British Junior Championship at Woodhall Spa at the age of nine. Soon after, she was part of the incredibly successful Futures squad and then the England regional squad – both coached by JJ Vallely at Matfen Hall. Today she is part of the six-strong England Girls squad and competes nationally and internationally with some of the best female golfers in the world.

The transition from nine-year-old potential star to accomplished teenager appears to have come easy for Maggie, but hard work has been the key to her success so far. “Winning the US Kids Golf event and getting to play in the finals at Pinehurst feels so long ago,” she says. “It’s funny looking back and thinking about where I started and how I looked up to the girls I’m now playing alongside. I dreamed of following in the footsteps of the girls who were in the regional squad – Caitlin Whitehead, Jess Baker and Rosie Belsham. I still look up to them, but we’re also now friends and play in the same tournaments.

“It’s also fun to now be in the position they were in, and to see the girls who are a step behind coming through. I’m proud to have come through the coaching system and I hope to be an example for the girls starting out.”

Maggie continues to work with JJ between travelling and competing, and we catch up at Ramside, where her golfing journey began, and where she splits her time at home with a second membership at Close House.

Still a regular part of the Ramside junior team when she can make their Thursday night matches, Maggie adds: “Starting out in the Futures squad and doing the one-day group sessions was the perfect starting point. It makes the transitions to the two-day regional sessions a lot easier. When you then go to England Golf for the two-day camps away from home, it just adds more to things you’re already familiar with.”

As well as squad coaching, Maggie works with JJ individually, even when they can’t meet in-person.

“JJ is a really important part of my golf. We don’t spend as much time on the range as we used to, but he’s always there for me when I need to talk about my game.

“When I was younger, it was hard to understand why he wouldn’t big me up like other people did. Looking back, I understand it was all part of the process of becoming better and not settling with what I’d already done. He’s always pushing me to be a better golfer.”

As Maggie’s profile has increased, so has the number of events she competes in. Long trips in the car and jumping between hotels are minor downsides to being an elite amateur golfer, she says, adding: “I miss my non-golfing friends when I’m away from home, but I get to spend time with my golfing friends. I tend to find a happy balance between time at home and time on the road. 

“The progression into bigger tournaments has been like climbing a ladder. Every time I make a step, the next one seems a little bit easier. I couldn’t imagine going from the junior events six years ago into some of the events now with the travelling, multiple practice rounds, working with the England coaches on-site and everything that goes into this level, but taking things step-by-step has made it manageable.”

Maggie became the youngest girl ever selected for the England Girls (under 18s) squad in 2020, a selection which followed her England debut in an under 16s match against Ireland in October 2019. She was selected for the squad alongside Arcot Hall-based Rachel Gourley, who made her debut a year earlier.

“Getting the call to say I was in the England squad was fantastic,” says Maggie. “I didn’t think I’d make it in 2020 as I was still 14, but when I finally answered the calls from the unknown number, I was in.

“It didn’t sink in straight away, but when I realised I was one of just six girls in the squad, it was amazing.”

Having met up with the squad for coaching sessions and played practice rounds together, Maggie explains how the six girls gelled immediately. “It’s great to have girls like Rachel and Lottie Woad in the squad. They’re always there if I need some advice.

“Being in the team alongside Rachel, who also plays for Northumberland, was a huge help. We knew each other from matches, but now we’re good friends and have shared a lot experiences. Being in the England system with another girl from Northumberland – much like what Rosie and Jess did before us – is fantastic. 

“The whole squad clicked instantly and there’s a real team spirit despite the fact we generally compete against each other.”

Maggie shot into the national sporting spotlight in front of the Sky Sports cameras in May when she led the Rose Ladies Series at The Berkshire with three holes to play. Playing alongside professionals Inci Mehmet and Rachel Drummond, Maggie led the field after playing her 15th hole. She went on to card a three over-par 72 for a tied-sixth finish and missed a four-way playoff by two shots.

“While I’ve climbed the golfing ladder step by step, the Rose Ladies Series was on another level,” she says. “I expected to finish last among some of the best female golfers in the country.

“On the course, I didn’t know I was leading until I saw the leaderboard at the 13th green – and checked with my dad, who was caddying for me, that there wasn’t another Whitehead playing.

“Things didn’t end the way I wanted, but I was still over the moon with a sixth-place finish in my first event alongside professional golfers. 

“Inci and Rachel were lovely and seemed quite shocked I hadn’t turned professional yet – or even done my GCSEs. It was good to see the pros care so much about the next group of golfers coming through.”

Maggie is home for just one day – mum Nicola tasked with interview transport and turning around all her kit to leave again tomorrow morning. They have travelled home to Durham from the English Girls’ Open Amateur Stroke Play Championship at Malton & Norton, where Maggie finished in third place, three shots behind England teammate Patience Rhodes. Tomorrow she heads to the English Girls’ U16 Open Championship at Morecambe. This summer will also include trips to Woodhall Spa for the Home Internationals and Fulford for The Girls’ Amateur Championship – where Maggie finished fifth in 2020.

“I was really happy to finish third in my first full 72-hole event and it was great to do it as part of a strong England Girls performance with all of us in the top 10.

“It’s a busy summer schedule but it’s great after missing so much in 2020. I definitely prefer playing a lot of golf to having to clear snow off a practice green in January!”

Much like her predecessors from the region in the England system, Maggie has set her sights on attending college in the US when she reaches the next stage of her golfing career.

“Rosie and Jess are having a great time and I want to have that experience before making any other big decisions. I need to complete my exams first, but then I’ll be able to start looking at what happens next,” she adds. “Before then, I’m looking forward to representing England in events like the Home Internationals and hopefully getting the chance to play events even further away.”

When you watch leaderboards and see achievements in black and white, it’s easy to be disconnected from the people on the other side of the numbers. It’s then fascinating to talk to those sportspeople and hear them explain their processes and passion. When you look up from a notebook and see the person explaining this so eloquently is just 15 years old, it’s remarkable.

“It’s quite funny seeing people react when I tell them my age,” Maggie says. “At The Berkshire, Rob Lee was caddying for Inci and he couldn’t believe I was 14. A lot of people tell me I’m mature for my age and I think it comes from acting in front of thousands of people when I was younger.

“I like that people think I’m older, I think it helps me handle moving through the fast-paced journey of junior golf.

“It’s also important to remember to spend time away from golf and I really enjoy spending time with my non-golfing friends or even just going for a run and listening to some music – just getting away from golf for a little bit.”

Maggie’s parents, Nicola and Andy, have been alongside her at every step – pushing trolleys in tournaments, driving up and down the country, huddling under umbrellas in the rain, and building an enviable knowledge of golf’s best halfway houses.

“I really enjoy travelling with my mum and dad, we have a laugh together,” adds Maggie. “I feel like I’m mature enough to manage on my own if they weren’t at an event, but I like having them around – especially when my dad carries my stuff and mum tidies up after me.”

Tomorrow Maggie will head to Morecambe, then Woodhall Spa and on to Fulford as part of a three-week trip. The summer holidays have just begun and there are plenty more tournaments and matches to look forward to. Our chat already sits six years into Maggie’s golfing journey. There is sure to be a lot more to come along the road, and she’s looking forward to seeing where it leads.

Following our interview, Maggie played at Morecambe in the English Girls U16 Open Championship and earned the biggest win of her golfing career to-date. The only player to shoot under-par in the four-round event, Maggie finished on seven under-par – nine shots clear of Gemma Burgess in second place. 

Following the win, Maggie said: “I’m honestly over the moon. I came here open-minded, played my best golf, survived in the weather and came off with the win. It means the world. To be in my own age group and perform the way I have done as the only golfer under par is something I’m pleased with.

“I had swing problems last week, but I had a talk with my coach and came here with a bit of a push. I knew the weather would be bad so I didn’t focus on the score – just concentrating on getting it round. The key to my success was staying patient.”