CLEVELAND – Ariya Jutanugarn should be at LPGA Q-School this fall. That line wasn’t written lightly. In fact, in 99 percent of cases, junior players should stay in school. Given the LPGA’s small schedule, the lack of sponsorship dollars available and the amount of money it costs to jet around the world, it’s simply not worth it.
But there’s no ignoring that 1 percent. After sitting down with the Jutanugarn sisters in the shadow of the scoreboard here at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, it’s clear they are ready to move on – together.
Ariya Jutanugarn, 16, advanced to the semifinals here at The Country Club and older sister Moriya served as caddie. They argued over which club to use on approach shots: Ariya likes to hit it hard while Moriya prefers to take a club more and swing easy. But when it came to the greens, Moriya was queen. She’s the better green reader, and Ariya listens intently to her advice.
On Saturday, Ariya will square off against Lydia Ko, a bespectacled 15-year-old who carries herself like a 30-year-old pro. Ko is the top-ranked player in the world. The two have never met before, and their match promises to be an epic duel. Both would fit in just as easily talent-wise down the road in Toledo at the LPGA’s Jamie Farr.
The Jutanugarn sisters petitioned the LPGA so that Moriya, who recently turned 18, and Ariya could attend Q-School together. (The tour has an age requirement of 18.) The sisters can’t think of a time they’ve been apart more than two weeks. LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, however, denied their request.
Ariya, the 2011 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion, is the more talented sister. She’s the taller one, hitting it 20 yards farther off the tee. She’s also fearless.
“She’s crazy,” said Moriya, putting her hands up to head and making the universal gesture for being mentally unstable.
Moriya, of course, was joking. She finds it amazing that Ariya never gets nervous. Her little sister’s attitude about life is incredibly positive.
“If I pick the wrong way to go, it’s OK,” Ariya said. “I have a long way to go in life.”
So far, Ariya hasn’t done much wrong. Golfweek’s top-ranked junior came to Cleveland fresh off a victory at the Junior PGA. Her summer conquests include the Canadian Amateur, Western Amateur and Rolex Girls’ Junior (an 18-shot win over Moriya).
Ariya tripped and drove a nail through her knee during a workout and couldn’t play in her U.S. Women’s Open qualifier. She instead caddied for Moriya at Blackwolf Run.
There’s no acceptable explanation for why Lexi Thompson was given the green light by Whan to play in LPGA Q-School as a 16-year-old and Ariya was not. Ariya turns 17 in November. Her game isn’t as flashy as Lexi’s (not as long), and she’s not a media darling. But these Thai girls have put in their dues. They’ve been in the U.S. since the Kraft Nabisco in March. They’ll stay here until Moriya finishes Q-School.
Think Lexi got a taste of the LPGA early on? Ariya played in her first LPGA event at 11 years, 11 months.
It’s a shame the two sisters will play apart next year. They’re better as a package. On the amateur scene, they’re known as “the pros.” Whan might as well embrace what’s coming and let the rest of the world get to know them together. The Jutanugarns’ English has improved dramatically since January (especially Ariya’s), and they couldn’t be more friendly.
Yes, there are more factors involved in making this decision than talent alone. But much like the young talent seen on the Olympic stage these past two weeks, these girls have been groomed for this path. There’s no point in trying to slow their progress. They aren’t going to college, and they aren’t staying amateur, no matter what the LPGA decides.
Ariya is in the process of petitioning the Ladies European Tour to try and attend their Qualifying School this winter. If she’s approved, the Jutanugarn family likely will split in half to accommodate the sisters’ schedules.
So much talent in one family. If Ariya wins it all this week, perhaps Whan will reconsider.
What will she have left to prove?