With rare club and new team, Ariya Jutanugarn has improved her mental game
SAMMAMISH, Wash. -- A 2-iron is to professional golf what the wolverine is to North America: There aren't many of them left, and it's remarkable when one is spotted.
There has been a rare sighting this week at the KPMG Women's PGA Championship.
Among the considerable talents of Ariya Jutanugarn, the 20-year-old from Thailand who is bidding to become the first LPGA player to win four straight tournaments since Lorena Ochoa in 2008, is her effective use of a 2-iron.
It is an implement largely abandoned in favor of designs that are easier to hit, but Jutanugarn, one of the most powerful players in women's golf, has no problem using hers.
Jutanugarn has chosen the club off many tees during the first two rounds at Sahalee Country Club, rifling low-flying shots out of tree-lined chutes that look different -- and sound different -- than shots hit by her competitors who have less clubhead speed.
"It's not the same strike and sound when she hits a ball compared to most of the other players," Les Luark, Jutanugarn's caddie, said Friday after Jutanugarn shot a 4-over 75, leaving her 3 over after 36 holes, tied for 23rd and five strokes behind co-leaders Brooke Henderson and Mirim Lee. "There are only a couple of women who can do it: Ariya and Lexi Thompson, and maybe Michelle Wie a few years back."
Luark began working for Jutanugarn in May 2015 when he was in the midst of missing the cut for 10 consecutive events. He had a hand in convincing Jutanugarn to eschew an erratic driver -- she doesn't even have it in the bag this week, and didn't during her recent victory at the LPGA Volvik Championship -- for the effective 230-yard line drives she can hit with her 18-degree driving iron.
"She always had the mentality that she was going to hit driver and lob wedge and kill you with that," Luark said. "It took me a long time to convince her that we can hit 2-iron and pitching wedge or 9-iron into the green; that we can score from 130 or 140 yards, not just from 80 yards. Thankfully, she bought into it."
The golfer who languished last season -- she quit a U.S. Women's Open practice round after six holes because she was so fearful where her ball was going -- has changed more than club selection. In addition taking Luark's advice, Jutanugarn has a new swing instructor, Gary Gilchrist, and new performance coaches, Vision54's Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson.
She has a tendency to be self-critical, but Jutanugarn has had an attitude adjustment thanks to Marriott and Nilsson.
"They have taught me how to be happy before I hit the shot," Jutanugarn said this week. "And I think that's really important to me because, especially last year, I was never happy to play golf. The only key I have is to be nice to myself, not to complain about every single shot."
Said Luark: "Pia and Lynn have been huge, huge, huge, especially getting her where she's been at the last six or eight weeks."
They have taught me how to be happy before I hit the shot. And I think that's really important to me because especially last year, I was never happy to play to play golf.Ariya Jutanugarn
Jutanugarn wasn't in the most chipper mood after lipping out on a par putt on her 18th hole Friday, but an hour later she was on the range hitting balls next to her sister, Moriya, 21, breaking up the practice session with conversation and checking her smartphone.
"It's easy to forget she's just 20 years old, and honestly she's 20 going on about 15," Luark said. "She's a young 20. She just wants to be a kid. She likes to joke and laugh and have a good time. She got a little overwhelmed at ANA."
In excellent position to win the ANA Inspiration earlier this year, Jutanugarn bogeyed the last three holes of the final round in a loss to Lydia Ko. It wasn't the first time in her young career she had frittered away a victory. Just four tournaments later, however, she won her first LPGA title at the Yokohama Tire Classic, and followed with wins at the Kingsmill Championship and Volvik Championship. No player in the LPGA's 66 years has made her first three wins in consecutive starts until Jutanugarn.
"Once she got over the initial shock and disappointment," Luark said of the ANA, "she kind of realized, 'I'm a great player and I'm going be in contention again and I just have to make sure I learn from what just happened and control my emotions so it doesn't happen again.' Deep down, she really knows how talented she is."
Count Inbee Park among those bullish on Jutanugarn's future.
"For her to break through the slump and win is great to see," said Park, who was in Jutanugarn's grouping on Thursday and Friday. "She's definitely a great, great player. I asked my husband, maybe three years ago, if he was to teach a player other than me, who did he think he could make a No. 1 player? And he said Lexi and Ariya. It was quite cool to see that."
Jutanugarn has come a long way since last year's lengthy streak of futility and since her 2013 shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum that derailed a brief, successful run on the LPGA Tour as a 17-year-old that saw her win nearly $450,000 in only five starts before being injured in a fall.
"For sure it's a totally different pressure," Gilchrist said of Jutanugarn's progression. "One's totally negative and one's a lot more positive. But now, the challenge is that everybody is thinking she can win this week. How do you go out and control the expectations and go out and play one hole at a time? She's not the only great player out here. There are another 30 players who can win."
There aren't, though, another 30 players who have the ability to whistle a 2-iron out there the way Jutanugarn can. In an era of uniform turf, swings and equipment, some things can still stand out -- beautifully so.