U.S. Women's Open playoff recovery gives Ariya Jutanugarn major reason to smile
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Ariya Jutanugarn smiles before she plays her shots, a reminder to stay in the moment, commit to the process and not worry about the outcome.
For the longest time on a steamy Sunday afternoon in the 73rd U.S. Women's Open at Shoal Creek, a sport sneered in response.
Golf got class-bully mean, Hyo-Joo Kim put on an impressive show and Jutanugarn, no stranger to trouble down the stretch of a major championship, went from invincible to vulnerable.
Bold turned into timid. Confidence gave way to fear. Shots that had been finding fairways and greens started to err right and left and then left and right, two-way misses jeopardizing a finish that had appeared headed in one direction and one direction only, toward Jutanugarn's second major title.
The outcome no one wanted to imagine after Jutanugarn built a seven-stroke lead after the front nine looked as if it was in deep plot development, inoculated from the best pre-shot routine any mental coach has ever prescribed.
Arnold Palmer blowing a seven-shot advantage with nine holes to play in the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club has always been the dark standard of quick and severe golf collapses, of strokes being peeled away like house shingles in a hurricane until there were none left, yet here was Jutanugarn doing her best at a 21st century version.
After misplacing his form on that infamous occasion then losing an 18-hole playoff to Billy Casper the following day, Palmer didn't like talking about what happened. He was 36 years old, and although he had some subsequent chances, Palmer never won another major title.
Jutanugarn is only 22, and she won't mind discussing the past couple of hours of this Women's Open like Palmer on his '66 debacle.
Despite shooting 41 on the final nine, despite an opponent who gave no quarter until the fourth playoff hole when her putter finally ran out of magic, despite looking as if all her mojo was already gone to Mobile, Jutanugarn had a gold medal around her neck and a sliver trophy by her side Sunday evening.
Seven shots in front, nine holes left. Such things don't disappear at once, but Jutanugarn played a terribly sloppy 10th hole, hitting her trusty and powerful 3-wood into a creek. She was in the rough in three, on the green in four, in the cup in seven.
Still, given the plump cushion, the triple seemed like it was only a surface scratch, not a deep gouge. Jutanugarn had some wiggle room. But the sprayed tee shot did something to her confidence. She didn't want to hit the 3-wood -- she didn't even carry a driver -- on the par-5 11th, but caddie Les Luark gave her a pep talk.
"He's like, 'Come on. Do you want to win?' " Jutanugarn said. "I'm like, 'Yes.' He said, 'OK, then we have to do it.' OK, so I hit."
Shoal Creek kept hitting back. Bogeys on Nos. 12, 17 and 18 were too much to be offset by a gorgeous tee shot to four feet on the par-3 16th. Kim, also 22, just kept plugging away, the way Casper did 52 years ago. Not really sure of where she stood on the leaderboard, she putted wonderfully all weekend (24 putts in a third-round 68 and 25 on Sunday).
The only player who didn't make on a bogey in the final round, Kim sank some monster putts for birdies, including a 30-footer on No. 6, a 45-footer on No. 12 and a hard-breaking 50-footer from off the green on No. 15 that got her within one.
For Jutanugarn, the bogey at the par-5 17th was uglier than the mess she made on the 10th. Laying up with an 8-iron, she hooked the ball badly in a difficult lie in the rough. Careless and very costly, and memories of the 2016 ANA Inspiration, where she bogeyed the last three holes to lose, came back to her.
Even the smiles by design weren't really working. "Honestly, I tried to smile," Jutanugarn said, "because I feel if I keep doing that it's going to make me happy -- not really so, but I try hard to do that."
With Jutanugarn and Kim finishing a two-hole aggregate playoff at even par and each parring the first sudden-death hole, Jutanugarn got up-and-down from a greenside bunker on the par-4 18th.
Sixty feet from the flagstick with a pond looming not far beyond, she blasted a brave shot that trickled within a foot of the cup. Jutanugarn had applauded for several of Kim's fine strokes, but she deserved a standing-O for this sand shot. It made the difference when Kim, whose second shot found a different bunker, missed a 15-footer for par.
"I felt pretty good," Jutanugarn said of facing that decisive sand shot. "I don't know why. The lie was not that good in the bunker, but I feel I can do it. I'm really confident with my bunker shot right now. Pretty difficult, but I still can see the shot."
There were lots of smiles after the long, wet week concluded with a long, wacky day. Jutanugarn's sister, LPGA player Moriya, and her mother, Narumon, were among those congratulating the young star with so much power and touch, who had overcome a shoulder injury and an uncomfortable turn as world No. 1 on the road to her ninth LPGA victory.
Thai Wichanee Meechai, a 25-year-old in her second LPGA season, was part of the celebration as well. Meechai likes to practice with the Jutanugarn sisters, hoping some of their winning ways -- and work ethic -- will rub off. She knows what the sisters, who have played in all 14 events this year, mean to each other.
"When they don't play well," Meechai said, "they keep each other fighting. They say, 'You can do it. You can do everything.'"
According to Meechai, Ariya is the biggest sports star in Thailand after soccer player Chanathip "Jay" Songkrasin, known as "The Messi Thai."
Moriya had finished her final round hours earlier, but was back out on the course rooting Ariya home. Before going out to watch, Moriya was asked to sum up her little sister's big game.
"When she can tie everything up," Moriya said, noting Ariya's power advantage. "It could be her week really easy."
This victory wasn't anything like the stroll it might have been, but it was hers just the same.
"This life, golf," Moriya said, "is about learning every day."
Sunday's schooling won't soon be forgotten.