Banquet provides proper send-off to Jutanugarn, NeSmith

Rolex Players of the Year Matthew NeSmith and Ariya Jutanugarn.

Girls Rankings »

#NameYearStateRating
1Andrea Lee2016CA68.05
2Kristen Gillman2016TX68.55
3Bethany Wu2015CA68.87
4Angel Yin2017CA69.58
5Lauren Stephenson2015SC69.8

Boys Rankings »

#NameYearStateRating
1Sam Burns2015LA68.25
2Jorge Garcia2015FL68.44
3Austin Connelly2015TX68.57
4Davis Riley2015MS68.61
5Zachary Bauchou2015VA68.67

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – When Ariya Jutanugarn’s smiling face appeared on the two tall video screens on either side of the PGA National Ballroom on Sunday night, she was speaking in rapid Thai. The teen from Bangkok told her story of picking up the game at age 5, when her father owned a pro shop back home in Thailand, as subtitles appeared on the screen. As the story goes, she’s been hooked ever since. Then came the infectious laugh.

When Jutanugarn took the podium minutes later to accept her second consecutive Player of the Year award at the Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet, it was in a sequined dress with long, dark hair falling over her shoulders. With confidence and composure, Jutanugarn delivered a heartfelt speech thanking her family and fellow competitors.

“This is as much yours as it is mine,” she said to parents Somboon and Narumon.

The words were delivered in nearly flawless English.

The Polo Golf Junior Classic will be Jutanugarn’s final start as an amateur, and perhaps the most noticeable difference since she began playing competitive golf in the U.S. in 2009 is Jutanugarn’s language skills. She has worked hard to develop them, often ending interviews and conversations with, “Has my English gotten better?”

At the end of the week, Jutanugarn, 16, switches her focus to a budding pro career. She petitioned (and was accepted by) the Ladies European Tour, and that tour’s Q-School will be played in December. Still, as Jutanugarn’s video introduction came to a close, an interviewer asked if she would win this week.

“I will,” she said. The audience laughed, but only minutes before fellow competitors had been reminded of Jutanugarn’s 18-shot routing at the Rolex Girls Championship at the difficult Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.

“There is no better way to end my amateur career,” Jutanugarn said of the Polo.

One has to think that in Jutanugarn’s head, that includes one final junior victory.

• • •

Matthew NeSmith already was choked up when it was his turn to take the podium. In the video honoring his junior golf career, which ended in August as he became a freshman at South Carolina, he joked about being so emotional. With tears in his eyes, NeSmith’s hand flew repeatedly from his chest to the audience as he thanked his parents and coaches.

NeSmith last year became the first player in history to win the two oldest AJGA events – the Rolex Tournament of Champions and the Polo – in the same season. NeSmith also won the FJ Invitational to secure a spot in the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship. At the Polo in 2011, NeSmith had to defeat five Rolex All-Americans to win the title.

The Player of the Year title, he said, is something he didn’t see coming. NeSmith giggled between memories with his junior golf buddies, but his tone became serious when he spoke of good friend Cody Proveaux, 2011 Player of the Year.

“Last year watching Cody give this speech inspired me probably more than anything else ever has,” NeSmith said.

It seems likely someone else in the crowd was watching with a similarly close eye.

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