That Ariya Jutanugarn was named Rolex Junior Player of the Year on Wednesday should come as no surprise. After a summer spent on the road half a world away, the 15-year-old is vastly more experienced in travel, more talented at the game and more surrounded than ever by friends on the American junior golf circuit.
Then again, the same holds true for older sister, Moriya, 17, who was named to the AJGA’s list of first-team All-Americans.
The Jutanugarns become almost entirely different youngsters by the end of the summer’s five-month trek across the U.S. It’s the longest the Jutanugarn family, of Bangkok, Thailand, has spent in the United States in three summers of traveling. Once Moriya primarily was the caddie for younger sister Ariya, and the pair made their first stateside appearance of 2011 with Moriya swimming in an oversized caddie jumpsuit at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Ariya had earned one of six sponsor exemptions for amateurs, and was the only one to make the cut. Nearly half a calendar year and a dozen tournaments later, Moriya began to challenge little sis not only for the honor of top Jutanugarn, but for that of top junior in the world. By the time the family boarded their flight home to Bangkok at the beginning of August, it was hard to make a case for which Jutanugarn sister was the best. Moriya, afterall, had just finished runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, but Ariya was less than a month removed from claiming the U.S. Girls’ Junior.
In any event, now would be a good time to learn just how Moriya (MORE-ee-uh) and Ariya (ARE-ee-uh) pronounce their names. Or, simply call them Mo and May. It’s how they refer to each other on the course. Though they converse in Thai for all situations that don’t involve the media or a growing contingent of U.S.-based friends, body language suggests their caddie-player relationship is thriving – no matter who is looping for whom.
Said Moriya of Ariya’s influence during the final match of the Women’s Amateur against Danielle Kang, “My sister always tell me, when you go back to Thailand, you have to work more.”
The girls hinted that there would be very few days of rest upon returning home to recover from a tightly-scheduled golf odyssey that left both noticeably fatigued. Moriya was icing both wrists the night before her match against Kang, and Ariya had to limp through two rounds of match play with a sore knee that same week before falling to Duke junior Lindy Duncan.
Ariya tweaked the knee during Women’s Am match play, but Moriya suspects she first injured the left wrist while hitting out of deep rough at the U.S. Women’s Open in early July. A week after claiming low-amateur honors there, an injured Moriya looped for Ariya at the U.S. Girls’ Junior rather than play. She was instrumental that week in reading greens, and with the focus off her own game, began talking of college for the first time. With more time left to make that decision, Ariya remains non-committal on the subject.
Ariya and Moriya also have said that they will turn pro when they think they are ready. They just don’t know when that will be.
Both girls turn up their noses when asked about their careers as students, but consider how far Ariya’s English has come in a year and that Moriya often is the one to translate for her family and navigate airports, car rentals and hotel reservations. Moriya builds each summer’s travel schedule with help from older half-brother Sussmon Jutanukal, who works at an outsourcing call center in Thailand and is one of Somboon Jutanugarn’s four older children.
The girls have come a longer way in a year than either will admit, and it’s the same story on the course and off. Once, Ariya shied away from interviews, displaying only an ear-to-ear grin after each friendly beat-down at AJGA, Junior PGA, USGA and even LPGA events. By her final event of the summer, the Women’s Amateur, Ariya chatted more easily about her game. She’s still more reserved than Moriya, but the two often interrupt each other excitedly when interviewed together. There seems to be little jealousy or sibling rivalry in this camp.
Junior opponents and LPGA players alike sing the praises of Ariya’s play and she becomes more and more well-known.
“Her game is really impressive for 15 years old – very, very impressive,” said Natablie Gulbis, who was paired with Ariya for Rounds 1 and 2 of the Kraft.
Fellow first-team All-American Gabriella Then knows how tough Ariya can be head-to-head. Then beat Ariya in sudden death at the Rolex Tournament of Champions, but lost to her in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Girls’ Junior.
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It’s hard to say what the future holds for the Jutanugarns. Moriya, a high school junior, says she has received a few letters of interest from U.S. college coaches but needs an SAT score before she can reply. She planned to seek Sussmon’s help in studying for the test when she returned to Thailand. Sussmon is very business-minded, she explained, but if she were to attend college, Moriya imagines she’d major in psychology.
Somboon, 60, quietly walks every hole of every match, and says the decision to pursue a college degree is up to his daughters.
Commitment to the game isn’t lacking in this family. Ariya and Moriya are fixtures on the practice facilities at each tournament venue, displaying the calm, pleasant demeanor common in Thailand, known as “Land of Smiles.” Somboon and wife Narumon have the same attitude, and Somboon is quick to explain how lucky the family feels to be outside every day, playing a sport they love. The Jutanugarns attend church every morning, even while on the road.
Nothing brings a bigger grin to either girl’s face than talk of home. After the Women’s Am, they returned to school at St. Peter Thonburi School in Bangkok, where a normal school day lasts five hours. The rest of the day is spent practicing at Rose Garden, a golf course where the Jutanugarns own a small pro shop. It is the only shop they still manage of the four they once owned, and one reason Moriya and Ariya took up the game. At the ages of 7 and 6, respectively, they spent so much time there after school that eventually Somboon, who also plays, taught them the game.
The Jutanugarns returned for the AJGA’s Ping Invitational last month, where Ariya finished runner-up to Jaye Marie Green, and plan to return again for the Polo Golf Junior Invitational in November – the season’s final AJGA invitational.
Anymore, junior and amateur fields don’t quite feel complete without them there.