Cruel as it looked for American Lexi Thompson, it’s almost poetic that Ariya Jutanugarn claimed victory at the Manulife LPGA Classic. She arrived in Ontario the victim of bad math. LPGA rankings projections had her making history last Monday as the first Thai player – male or female – to become World No. 1.
Only there was a glitch in the system, and despite headlines around the world that had already bestowed the honor, Jutanugarn remained No. 2.
She said earlier in the week that the mistake didn’t give her added motivation, but she still buried a birdie putt on the first playoff hole Sunday to end any doubt.
“I just can’t believe I win the tournament,” said Jutanugarn, who covered her mouth in disbelief as she shed tears of joy.
It was Jutanugarn’s first victory of 2017, allowing her to shrug off the mounting pressure she felt to back up a monster ’16 season that included five wins and LPGA Rolex Player of the Year honors.
“Yeah, I feel a lot better,” Jutanugarn said of her immediate relief.
Thompson held a four-shot lead at the midway point Sunday at the final staging of the Manulife Classic. Her four bogeys on the back nine at Whistle Bear Golf Club included a particularly ugly three-putt on the 18th – she missed a 4-foot par putt that would’ve clinched the title.
That sent Jutanugarn, Thompson and In Gee Chun back to the 18th tee for a sudden-death playoff between three of the top-5 players in the world. Jutanugarn was the only one who found the rough off the tee, but she managed to strike her approach shot closest to the hole.
Thompson couldn’t even find the putting surface from 90 yards out. For a player who looked like she might lap the field two hours prior, it was a stunning collapse. Thompson closed with a 72 but still signed autographs after the round, as she did at the ANA Inspiration after a penalty for mis-marking her ball the previous day cost her the title.
“It’ll take the night,” said Thompson of getting over her disappointment. “It’s rough, but it’s alright.”
As for Jutanugarn, she ended a victory drought that spanned 20 starts. Her putting in Canada looked more like it did in last year’s sensational run. She even overcame bad mojo off the tee.
“When I got here,” Jutanugarn said, “I didn’t feel comfortable to hit the golf ball. I’m scared to hit my tee shot.”
When she’d nabbed her sixth career title, Jutanugarn hugged her caddie, Les Luark, the man who first convinced her to put 2-iron in the bag and saw her through a drought of 10 missed cuts.
Jutanugarn finds herself at the game’s pinnacle at the tender age of 21. Few players have scripted a more fascinating journey to the top.
“I think I feel it on Monday,” Jutanugarn said.