FORT WAYNE, Ind. – It’s unusual that Ariya Jutanugarn claims a trophy after a nail-biter of a final round. But by the time Jutanugarn was clutching a crystal globe Friday on the 18th green at Sycamore Hills Golf Club, her mother Narumon was shaking her head at a nerve-racking day.
In the past five hours, Jutanugarn had given up her share of the lead, dropped behind and then charged back with four birdies in the last four holes.
Narumon still had her usual bright smile as she watched her daughter give an acceptance speech, but her heart had been in her throat most of the day. If Jutanugarn’s was, she didn’t let on. Still, it was much different than last year’s 10-shot blowout at this event. She had to fight to finish at 13-under 275 for a three-shot victory.
“I’m never nervous,” Jutanugarn said with a laugh. “I’m so excited.”
Jutanugarn, Golfweek‘s top-ranked junior, shared the lead with Samantha Wagner at the beginning of the day. Older sister Moriya Jutanugarn, two shots back, completed the final threesome. The day began as one might expect: Ariya birdied at Nos. 2, 4 and 5 while Wagner birdied No. 3.
“I didn’t really feel like I had to match; I just had to play my game,” said Wagner, a normally aggressive player who said her game fit Jutanugarn’s well, aside from the Thai player’s length. Wagner kept pace, making birdies at Nos. 6 and 7 before back-to-back bogeys to close the front nine.
Two groups behind – the final group of boys was wedged in between – Alison Lee was the first player to make a move. When she turned in a 4-under 32 and Jutanugarn bogeyed Nos. 9 and 10, Lee claimed a share of the lead. She led alone after a birdie at the par-5 15th hole. Lee peeked at the scoreboard on her way to the 16th tee and then found two bunkers on that hole on her way to a bogey. It was her first in three days.
“I kept calm most of the time, but when I teed it up on 16 I was just talking to my group and, I don’t know; I should have taken more time and focused more,” she said.
From there, Lee missed what she called an easy birdie from tees that had been moved forward at the par-4 17th. She played an aggressive drive at the 18th hole and ended up barely in a water hazard. A penalty shot and a three-putt followed at 18 for a closing double bogey, effectively ending her shot at the title. She finished four shots behind at 9-under 279.
All three players had something to play for on Friday. For Ariya Jutanugarn, it was a second chance at a major title defense after losing in the semifinals at the U.S. Girls’ Junior two weeks ago. She becomes only the sixth player in the 37-year history of this championship to win more than one title, and is the first player since Inbee Park (2001-02) to win back-to-back.
Wagner, who walked out of the scoring tent with a spot on the Junior Ryder Cup team and tears in her eyes, wanted to redeem last year’s performance. She missed the cut by nine after her 7-year-old golden retriever, Chance, died on the way to this tournament.
“I really wanted to come back and win and do better because of what happened last year. I didn’t play to my ability last year because it was such a mess. I played great this year; I’m happy with how I played,” said Wagner, who is looking forward to getting another golden retriever at the end of the summer. She’ll name it Mulligan.
As for Lee, who also earned a spot on the Junior Ryder Cup team this week, a Junior PGA title might have made up for her loss at the U.S. Girls’ Junior, too. She lost to Minjee Lee on the 36th hole after teeing off at the 31st hole (No. 13) with a 3-up lead. Her hands shook that day as she tried to close out the match. On Friday, she was noticeably calmer. On the high side of a slump that plagued her game last summer, Lee has come a long way in a year.
“Whenever I thought of this course, I had nightmares, and coming into this tournament, I was so nervous,” said Lee, who withdrew from last year’s championship. “But my game has been really well, and playing this course how I’m playing right now made it so easy.”