Ariya Jutanugarn searching for fourth title and more history at Ricoh Women's British Open
WOBURN, England -- There must be something in the waters of Woburn that appeals to Thai golfers. Last year, Kiradech Aphibarnrat led after 54 holes of the British Masters at the Marquess course, and nine months later his compatriot Ariya Jutanugarn holds a two-shot advantage heading into the final round of the Ricoh Women's British Open on the very same layout.
Aphibarnrat hit a wall after leading, only adding a 72 to his three rounds of 67 and eventually losing to winner Matthew Fitzpatrick by four shots.
But after shooting a bogey-free 6-under 66 in a magnificent round on Saturday, there is plenty of evidence to believe Jutanugarn, who now is 16-under par and two strokes clear of nearest rival Mirim Lee, will fare much better than Aphibarnrat.
For starters, she has three times this season -- in May alone in fact -- held the solo lead on the LPGA, and on each occasion she ended Sunday lifting the trophy.
For another, she might care to take inspiration from her visit this week to the nearby Safari Park because a tiger prowls the woods there. Sound familiar?
It might do. Because the last golfer with Thai blood to hold the 54-hole lead in a major championship was, of course, Tiger Woods, and although that lead -- at the 2009 PGA Championship -- eventually frittered away, it was the exception which proved the rule: Woods converted no less than 14 of the 15 major championship leads he held with 18 holes to play.
The on-course personas of Woods and Jutanugarn could not be any different. Woods dropped his birdies with a fist punch and a snarl, much like a tiger in fact. Jutanugarn in contrast adopts a smile into her pre-shot routine and greets birdies with a kindly wave toward the galleries; less tiger than her favorite animal at the Safari Park: the deer.
But Woods always credited his Thai heritage for his calmness under pressure, and perhaps it also assists the 20-year-old Jutanugarn, whose third round was remarkable for its lack of tension.
Her front nine was an exercise in easy attacking golf, as her approaches rained down on the flag, allowing her to tick four birdies and add a fifth on the 10th. Having trailed the overnight leader Lee by one at the start of play, she was now two clear and flying.
Increasingly disgruntled with her efforts on the trip home, it only came down to perfectionism. Her misses were always in the right areas and rarely left her anything other than a tap-in for par at worst.
Only once, when she raced her birdie putt on the 13th hole 10 feet past the hole, was she called upon to breathe fast. Or did she? There was little proof of any stress as she poured the putt in and grinned at the galleries.
"I think it's no pressure for me because the only thing I want is to have some fun," she said afterward. "One more day, I want to have fun. I want to be happy."
If her English is limited, her game is not. She qualified to play the Honda LPGA Thailand event in 2007 when she was just 11 years old, began the 2013 season with a win in Morocco on the Ladies European Tour and finished in the top five in her first five starts on the LPGA during that year.
But just weeks later, she injured her shoulder when fooling around with sister Moriya in a practice round at the Wegmans LPGA Championship. It was only earlier this year that her career righted itself -- as recently as last summer she endured a run of 10 missed cuts.
I think it's no pressure for me because the only thing I want is to have some fun. One more day, I want to have fun.Ariya Jutanugarn
A fourth-place finish at the ANA Inspiration, the first major championship of the year, was the first genuine sign of a return to form. The hat-trick of victories in May confirmed it. Both she and Lee lost out in a playoff to world No. 1 Lydia Ko in her last start.
She arrived at Woburn feeling good about her game, ditched her driver and determined that she would smile before every shot. It's a simple framework for success, and it appears to be working.
Lee, meanwhile, has refused to wilt. An early bogey and Jutanugarn's quick start saw her lead disappear, but she responded in style: Birdies at 5, 7, 10 and 12 drew her within two of the leader on every occasion. The two-time LPGA champion is still seeking a first major championship victory, and should she succeed tomorrow, she will extend a run of six straight seasons in which Korea has claimed a major title.
Mo Martin, the 2014 champion, is alone in third at 11-under after a 69, with 2009 winner Catriona Matthew a shot further at 10-under after stumbling to a 2-over back nine of 38 for a third-round 71.
Teenagers have won four of the past six women's major championships, but 30-year-old Brittany Lang most recently won the U.S. Women's Open. A success for Matthew would, at 46, be both remarkable and an unlikely boost for the fortysomethings.
There were, of course, high hopes that England's Charley Hull would join the list of young winners, but the home favorite got off to the worst start possible.
Cheered on to the first tee by the enthusiastic galleries, including a busload of junior golfers from her hometown of Kettering, she pulled her opening drive above a bunker, pushed her approach into the trees, clattered into one of those trees with her third and only found the green with her fourth. A three-putt completed a triple-bogey 7, which destroyed her title hopes. She eventually carded a 3-over 75 and is 14 shots behind the leader.
It is now in Jutanugarn's hands to maintain the trend of young winners, albeit at 20, she'll be old in comparison with the 18-year-old winners.
The records are set to tumble. She has already topped Caroline Masson's 15-under-par 54-hole record total (Carnoustie 2011) and now has Karen Stupples' 19-under record winning total (Sunningdale 2004) in the crosshairs.
Her serene progress is backed up by the fact that she has made just one bogey all tournament. Ten golfers in the past 20 years have held a 54-hole lead of two shots or better in this tournament, and nine converted the win.
Jutanugarn's week began when she woke early Thursday morning, wrote "Happy Birthday" on a tissue and left it by her sleeping sister's bedside.
She is on target to end it lifting the trophy.