Ariya Jutanugarn burning up the course with newfound confidence
Even for elite athletes, winning can be a mystery until it isn't.
Exhibit A this spring is Ariya Jutanugarn, a 20-year-old from Thailand who on Sunday won the LPGA Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was her third straight victory on the LPGA Tour, following triumphs at the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic and Kingsmill Championship.
No one in the history of the LPGA, which was founded in 1950, has had her first three career wins come consecutively until Jutanugarn. Her first two victories were squeakers, each by one stroke, but her latest turned into a stroll thanks to four birdies over the last six holes at Travis Pointe Country Club.
Jutanugarn closed with a 67 to finish at 15 under par, 5 strokes ahead of Christina Kim, to become the first player to win three LPGA events in a row since Inbee Park in 2013.
"She made it look so easy," said Jessica Korda, who was in the final grouping with Jutanugarn and tied for third place, six shots back.
Given what happened to Jutanugarn at the ANA Inspiration, the first women's major championship of 2016, she wouldn't have been a golfer pegged to break through in dominant fashion. Jutanugarn wilted badly amid the final-round pressure at Mission Hills, bogeying the last three holes to open the door wide for Lydia Ko, who capitalized on Jutanugarn's blunders to win her second straight major title.
In 2015, Jutanugarn had two top-three finishes early in the season but then missed the cut in 10 straight tournaments. Three years ago, Jutanugarn triple-bogeyed the closing hole to lose to Park at the LPGA Thailand. The player who impressively won the 2011 U.S. Girls' Junior at 15 was having big trouble closing the deal in an attempt to become the first Thai to win an LPGA event.
Those droughts and collapses seem like ancient history, as does a freak 2013 injury to Jutanugarn's right shoulder, which required surgery to repair a torn labrum that sidelined her for eight months. Ariya was joking around with her older sister, Moriya -- who also plays on the LPGA -- as the two walked off a tee during a practice round at the LPGA Championship in upstate New York. Ariya fell and got hurt, interrupting a season in which she was racking up top-five finishes despite not having a tour card.
Some of golf's finest champions have excelled only after high-profile failures in a bright spotlight. Tom Watson, notably, blew a couple of majors on the final day in the mid-1970s before putting the pieces of the puzzle together successfully. Jutanugarn's painful experience at the ANA Inspiration appears to be another case of a golfer learning a lot through a loss.
"Of course, I bring up ANA [because] I don't know how to play with pressure, I don't know how to control [myself] when I got really nervous," Jutanugarn told reporters after winning the Volvik. "So after that actually I get a lot more confident after ANA because I feel like I'm good enough to win. So after that [I was] just getting more and more confident."
Power plus touch is a potent equation, fueling many big winners in men's and women's golf, and Jutanugarn's game is built on it. She is ranked 16th in driving distance in 2016 at 266.98 yards, but she doesn't hit many drivers, choosing to hit a 3-wood or long iron off tees. Jutanugarn didn't even carry a driver last week and didn't need one. During her late birdie binge, Jutanugarn made a 4 on the par-5 14th hole with a 260-yard 3-wood off the tee, a 4-iron more than 200 yards over the green, and a deft pitch to 6 feet.
Jutanugarn's approach shots weren't precise much of the day at Travis Pointe, but her short game bailed her out. On No. 9, when she led by only one shot, she got up and down for par and did the same thing on No. 11. She also got the kind of break that winners receive on the 13th, where her pitching wedge second shot was short and missed plugging in the face of a bunker by about a foot. Her ball then took a good hop onto the green within eight feet of the flagstick, setting up the first of her four closing birdies.
How good can I be? I really want to be top five in the world. That's my goal.Ariya Jutanugarn
"Ariya is very difficult to describe," Kim said. "There really hasn't been a player like her honestly in my generation, and the way that she just powers the ball, it's remarkable. She's got such imagination around the golf course and incredible touch and it's really, really cool to see how far she's come."
Jutanugarn has climbed from 63rd in the Rolex Rankings at the start of the year to 10th following her third victory.
"How good can I be? I really want to be top five in the world," she said. "That's my goal."
She isn't playing this week's ShopRite LPGA Classic but will return to action next week at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship. The LPGA record for most consecutive victories is five, shared by legends Nancy Lopez (1978) and Annika Sorenstam (2004-05). With Ko shooting for her third straight major victory, Jutanugarn's quest to keep her streak going adds intrigue to what already was an anticipated occasion.
A year ago at this time Jutanugarn was in the middle of a deep slump, playing timid, scared golf. The turnaround has been remarkable.
"She went through a really tough patch last year," said Kim, who was among fellow players who encouraged Jutanugarn to keep plugging away and let her talent flourish. "I [kept] telling her how great of a golfer she is. Sometimes when you're down on your luck and nothing seems to be going your way, the last thing you want to do or am able to do is be patient."
Jutanugarn was, and the results are nothing short of stunning.