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Jutanugarn, Ernst will face off on Saturday

BARRINGTON, R.I. – Moriya Jutanugarn has a habit of explaining long birdie putts thusly: “I got lucky.” Common sense tells golf observers that there’s more coursing through the Jutanugarn’s veins than sheer luck. This is one dominant sister act.

Not since Aree and Naree Song has the women’s game seen two siblings light up the amateur circuit quite like the Jutanugarns. Both sets of sisters, incidentally, grew up in Thailand.

Ariya, 15, is Golfweek’s No. 1 junior while her 17-year-old sister Moriya is ranked second. Ariya, knocked out in the second round by Duke’s Lindy Duncan, took over as caddie for her older sister and helped Moriya advance to the semifinal round of the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Ariya Jutanugarn won the U.S. Girls’ Junior last month and the Junior PGA by 10 strokes last week. Moriya, the more sociable of the two sisters, believes it might be her turn.

“I know if she can do it, I can do it,” Moriya said. “That’s in my mind.”

A three-putt on the first hole at Rhode Island Country Club left Moriya’s confidence shaken. She struggled all day to find her groove against Casey Danielson, an energetic 16-year-old from Wisconsin. Their quarterfinal match never had more than a 1-up advantage until Jutanugarn closed it out, 2 up, on the 17th hole.

A four-foot birdie putt on No. 16 put the easygoing Thai player, 1 up. Danielson went long and left with her tee shot on No. 17 and left herself with a difficult up and down. Jutanugarn two-putted from the fringe to end the match.

“All of my matches have been close,” said an exhausted-looking Moriya, who won the first three rounds, 1 up. Moriya damaged her left wrist hitting out of the rough at the Broadmoor last month during the U.S. Women’s Open and pulled out of the U.S. Girls’ Junior. It’s still troubling her, though not enough to keep Jutanugarn from fighting her way through the lower half of the bracket.

On Saturday, Jutanugarn will square off against a confident Austin Ernst, the 2011 NCAA Champion from LSU who feels “on top of the world” this week. Ernst is two matches away from becoming the first player since Vicki Goetze-Ackerman to win both the U.S. Women’s Amateur and NCAA titles in the same calendar year. Goetze-Ackerman, who retired from the LPGA several years ago, accomplished the feat in 1992.

“That would be outrageous,” Ernst said.

Ernst and her mother, Melanie, have stayed with a host family this week just off the 14th fairway. Every day her father, Mark, checks in prior to her match with a text message and Drew, 22, usually texts his younger sister afterward. The Ernst family thrives on competition – whether it’s card games, ping pong or pool – but they’re close.

“When we play, it’s pretty cut-throat,” Melanie said, laughing.

Both Ernst kids gave up other sports around age 12 to concentrate on golf. Austin said her brother’s daily competition grew her game tremendously. Drew played college golf at Coastal Carolina and will graduate in December.

“You can learn so much stuff from guys,” Austin said. “He has always lent a helping hand.”

Ernst took an early lead against UCLA’s Stephanie Kono on the first hole and had control of the match the entire afternoon. Kono, a staple at USGA events, never has advanced to a championship final. When Ernst closed out the match on the 14th green, Kono was gracious to everyone around her and then wiped tears away as she walked back toward the clubhouse with her father.

The UCLA senior never looked sharp in what is likely her final Women’s Am appearance.

“She probably didn’t play as well as she wanted to today,” Ernst said of her opponent. “I didn’t make many mistakes, and when I did, I recovered with par. It was just a solid round.”

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