LPGA Q-School: Jutanugarn's practice pays off

Moriya Jutanugarn of Thailand on the range on Tuesday of LPGA Q-School at LPGA International.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After six holes on the Legends Course, Moriya Jutanugarn was getting nervous. Jutanugarn, whose last competitive golf memory from LPGA International was her victory Sept. 7 at the first stage of Q-School, had made five pars and a bogey. Granted, it’s a long week, but she was expecting a few more early fireworks.

Perhaps to the tune of the five birdies she recorded in the remaining 12 holes to get to 68.

“I had a lot of problems before I came here,” Jutanugarn insisted.

Since the last stage of Q-School, Jutanugarn has been on the West Coast working with swing coach Craig Chapman at Harbor Golf Center in Wilmington, Calif. The Bangkok teen has a tendency to downplay her talent, but she insisted Wednesday that things were bad. Jutanugarn said she had no idea where the ball was going, and so badly wanted her game to be perfect for final stage that she moved her flight back two days to spend more time with Chapman.

Jutanugarn arrived in Daytona Beach on Nov. 19, spent a couple of “lazy days” just driving around the course getting her bearings, then set to work practicing. She says she called Chapman for swing help every day, and was so nervous she asked her father Somboon to leave little sister Ariya back in Los Angeles and come to Daytona Beach.

Ariya is preparing for Ladies European Tour Q-School in Morocco next month.

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BALLERINA TO GOLFER: Kathleen Ekey has worked hard to change a disposition ingrained in her from childhood days of tutus and tip-toes. The leggy, golden-haired Ekey has a history as a ballerina and it was during those formative years, she says, that she developed the “perfectionistic tendencies” that still haunt her golf game.

So Ekey, tied at the top of the leaderboard with a first-round 68 at the final stage of LPGA Q-School, often has to refer back to this mantra: Ballet is perfect, golf is not.

Many things have changed for Ekey since the 2011 season. She won twice that year on the Symetra Tour, and led all players on that tour in birdies, eagles and greens in regulation. She made the biggest jump (226 spots) of any player in the Golfweek/Sagarin women’s professional rankings.

In 2012, Ekey, a rookie, made just three cuts in 15 LPGA starts. Part of that had to do with lofty goal setting. Ekey expected everything to be perfect when she returned to competition for 2012, but instead she struggled with some minor swing changes she made in an attempt to get in a better position at the top of her backswing.

“Something little like that, it’s so easy for me to freak out over it and then it’s just hard to pull yourself back out of that,” she said.

Ekey works with swing instructor V.J. Trolio, and has since 2010. Since her last LPGA start, the Navistar LPGA Classic at the end of September, she’s tried to accept that “this is my golf swing.” She’s also focused more on playing instead of practicing.

“Sometimes it’s just going out there and playing and forgetting about trying to be perfect,” she said. “Sometimes I get myself in sort of a tug of war because I have to be really careful that I don’t let myself cross that line.”

Ekey drew the Champions Course at LPGA International for the first round, and it was the more difficult of LPGA’s two tracks because it offered little protection from an icy wind. Ekey moved to Palm Beach, Fla., a year ago and her house is a two-minute walk from the beach. Her home course of Bear Lakes is similarly breezey, so she said Wednesday’s conditions gave her an advantage.

She may be a perfectionist, but Ekey also is an optimist.

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LESS STRESS: Stephanie Kono’s front and back nines on the Champions Course were wildly different. Starting on No. 10, the LPGA rookie went out in 30 and came back in 40. Her first nine holes included birdies at Nos. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 18. She can’t remember ever making more than five birdies in a row before Wednesday.

It wasn’t that Kono fell apart on the next nine, it was just hard to keep up that pace. She made four bogeys, and is one of 14 players tied for sixth at 2-under 70.

“I never played that poorly,” she said. “It’s just hard in the wind when you make a mistake.”

Kono nearly won this tournament last year – she finished T-9 after opening the week with 67 – and this year the setting is considerably less stressful. Kono, who only wanted Symetra Tour status last year, found out after entering the final stage that she didn’t actually need to be there. But after the 67, which put her near the lead, she was backed into a corner. She continued to play hard and earned her card, but she had to turn professional and leave UCLA a semester early to accept it.

Kono made 14 starts on the LPGA tour this year, and missed the cut in all of them. Traveling without a team was an adjustment, she said, but she still had a support group in former UCLA teammates now on tour as well as her “big sis” Vicky Hurst (the LPGA assigns veteran players to rookies to ease the transition).

“The hardest thing for me is to believe in myself,” said Kono, who was a three-time All-American while at UCLA.

“Going to the LPGA is kind of daunting.”

• • •

FIRST-ROUND STUMBLE: Melissa Reid is among the players with the most notable resumes this week at LPGA International. The European Solheim Cupper also has four victories on the Ladies European Tour, which is why it was so surprising to see her name in the 110th spot on the leaderboard after one round.

Reid came out of the gate with a bogey at No. 2, a double at No. 5 and another bogey at the sixth. She had three more bogeys on the back and no birdies, and finished with a 7-over 79 on the Champions Course.

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