Moriya Jutanugarn stood on the 18th green and gazed up at the leaderboard. At the time, younger sister Ariya was 7 under and leading the Kingsmill Championship.
“I thought somebody put (up) the wrong number,” said Moriya, with a wry smile.
She knows better.
Ariya Jutanugarn, 17, boasts one of the best records in the world. In three tournaments on the LPGA and four events on the LET, she has five top-4 finishes. Ariya, a rookie on the LET, leads the Order of Merit thanks to a victory in Morocco and a T-2 at the Volvik RACV Ladies Masters. She has finished second, fourth and third in three events on the LPGA and would be ranked eighth on the money list with $328,643 if she were a tour member.
“Last night she’s like, ‘Moriya, I can’t putt. I can’t hit the ball,’ ” said 18-year-old Moriya.
Apparently, Ariya whines like this often in the hotel room.
“Sometimes, I say, ‘Shut up!’ ” Moriya said, and then laughed.
Moriya didn’t realize that while she was putting the finishing touches on her 2-over 73, a local reporter was out there snapping pictures. It wasn’t until later that the reporter realized she was capturing the wrong black-and-orange clad sister. So late, in fact, that Ariya, having played five groups ahead, already was finished with her 7-under 64. She leads the field by two strokes.
Other than the fact that the Jutanugarn sisters often dress like twins, they don’t really look similar. Younger sister Ariya towers over her parents and her sister. She goes after the ball with so much force that playing competitor Sandra Gal, who stands 6 feet tall, found herself caught up in Ariya’s tempo.
“I shouldn’t have been watching her,” Gal said. “You just hear the sound. She hits it so hard.
“There’s a lot of potential there, my gosh. There’s no fear. And she makes a lot of putts.”
Wayne Nooe, vice president of sport operations for Kingsmill Resort, stood in the back of the media room and listened to Ariya’s press conference. She’s playing this week on a sponsor exemption; the tournament made a nice selection.
Jutanugarn probably doesn’t know that the LPGA’s Tournament Owners Association had a meeting today at Kingsmill. Guaranteed they’ve all heard about the kid’s round today. That’s handy, considering she doesn’t have any other sponsor exemptions lined up and planned to Monday qualify her way into upcoming events. Jutanugarn played on a sponsor exemption in Thailand and Singapore and qualified in Hawaii. She tried to qualify in Texas last week and missed by a shot.
Ariya petitioned the LPGA last year to enter Q-School but was denied entry. LPGA rules stipulate a player must be 18 to enter Q-School, and there have been few exceptions. Moriya was co-medalist at last year’s Q-School – and leads the tour’s Rookie of the Year race by 130 points over Caroline Masson. Ariya went on to LET Q-School and won the tournament. She has done nothing since then but make commissioner Mike Whan’s decision look rather silly.
Ariya, No. 23 in the Rolex Rankings, is exempt into this year’s U.S. Women’s Open based on being ranked inside the top 25 by May 1. She’s also in the the Ricoh Women’s British Open and The Evian based on her LET victory.
A top-10 finish here at Kingsmill would not exempt Ariya into the next event. That rule applies only to LPGA members. (And that rule should change.) Should Ariya hold on to win this week, which is certainly plausible, she would need to re-petition the LPGA for permission to join the tour.
“After Thailand, I don’t have any nerves anymore,” said Ariya, who triple-bogeyed the 18th hole at the Honda LPGA Thailand earlier this year to hand the tournament to Inbee Park. Moriya was there to wipe away the tears.
“I remember like every single shot I hit because it was a really good experience,” Ariya said. “It made me be a stronger golfer.”
Ariya was 6 under through seven holes Thursday morning at Kingsmill. She’s ready for this tour, and it would serve the LPGA well to have her out each week. Ariya has three sponsor exemptions left to use, should she find three suitors.
Neither of the Jutanugarn sisters can drive a car. Their mom picked out their outfits for today, and they have a parent traveling with them at all times. The Jutanugarns are young, sweet girls who were groomed for professional golf.
And boy, are they exciting to watch.