Jutanugarns to separate as pro careers begin

Ariya Jutanugarn (left) with her older sister Moriya Jutanugarn.

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#NameYearStateRating
1Andrea Lee2016CA68.31
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From behind the zoom lens of a hefty Canon camera, Ariya Jutanugarn’s laughter rings out. On a cool afternoon in Cleveland, not even an hour removed from breezing into match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Jutanugarn has reversed this photo shoot.

Playing around the shady, foliage-protected swimming pool at The Country Club, Jutanugarn expertly handles the photographer’s gear – she has her own Instagram account, you know – relinquishing the camera only to ham it up in the spotlight. Older sister Moriya joins. Soon, they’re trying to shove each other’s heads into the water and splashing while fully clothed. Then they return to their iPhones.

Sure, this day has been a grind, and though many a competitive round ends on a putting green or practice range at sunset, these Thai sisters truly love golf.

They will be good at this, good in front of the spotlight. Just a year ago, Ariya, 16, still leaned heavily on Moriya, 18, as much for her caddie services as for translation.

These days, Ariya sometimes repeats a word slowly and interrupts with, “What does that mean?” before digging deep to answer the question thoroughly. Most interviews end with this line: “Has my English gotten better?”

It has. Exponentially, in fact. Aside from the ever-present smile and the incredible short game, it was the most striking thing about the world’s No. 3-ranked amateur during a summer of extraordinary success. She and Moriya, No. 12 in the R&A rankings, played arguably the toughest competition of any amateurs in the world.

It’s time now to separate. The LPGA held tight to its 18-year-old age minimum, which prompted Ariya to petition (and be accepted by) the Ladies European Tour. That tour’s Q-School will be played in December. Moriya, meanwhile, won the first stage of LPGA Q-School on Sept. 7 and advanced through second stage on Oct. 12. She has one more stage to go.

If their pro careers launch the way the Jutanugarns hope, they’ll have to do it on separate tours and continents. That scenario may have its benefits – it could help Moriya and Ariya develop distinct identities – but it also means the coming year could be unlike any they’ve experienced.

• • •

Stuffed in the corner of a garage in Southland, Calif., is a tall stack of spare golf bags, boxes of golf balls, trophies and other assorted victory loot, haphazardly packaged in bubble wrap and cardboard. Boxes begin making their way to family friend Varuth Pholwannabha each April. He ships the majority to the Jutanugarns’ Bangkok home at the end of each long summer.

Pholwannabha, who often goes by the nickname Aaron, also provides a home base for the family when they’re not on the road. That’s infrequent, as the girls played 10 North American tournaments each from April to August. Ariya won five times, while Moriya won once and finished runner-up to her sister three times. Often, it’s a story of a Jutanugarn duel, then the rest of the field in the distance. They are stiff – albeit smiley – competition, and respected by their peers.

When Ariya won the last of those events, a title defense at the Junior PGA Championship, nearly every other player who finished among the top 15 spots on the leaderboard filed onto the 18th green to give her a hug after her acceptance speech.

“You can tell their congrats comes from the heart,” Ariya said later. “When I won, they tell me, ‘Turn pro.’ ”

That’s when Moriya chimes in.

“Everybody tell her that, every week.”

Parents, players and college coaches alike say it – to her and about her. One reason is the rigorous travel schedule. For four years, the Jutanugarns have played a global schedule that rivaled many female professionals’. It’s not only expensive but draining.

“It is pretty hard,” Pholwannabha said in an email. “But if you have good management, it is not impossible to do it.”

“Management” is older half-brother Sussmon Jutanukal, who works at an outsourcing call center in Thailand and helps build each year’s travel schedule. At first, he said, creating the best tournament schedule took hours of research, but then the invites came pouring in. A Jutanugarn in the field instantly heightens the competition.

Jutanukal also helps pay the travel bills. The Jutanugarns stay with friends or host families as much as possible on the road but when necessary, rent one hotel room for the four of them. Jutanukal calls their travel style “thrifty.” He said the family has spent $50,000 to $60,000 since the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and that he generally helps only with airfare and rental-car expenses.

Aside from a language barrier – though Moriya has been guiding the family through airports and rental car agreements since she was 14 – the biggest challenge comes from being so nomadic. Both girls began working with swing coach Craig Chapman six months ago. They visit Chapman, based at Harbor Golf Center in Wilmington, Calif., as often as possible between tournaments.

The first time he took the girls to the range, Chapman said he was struck by their distance and their work ethic. He spent the summer working on improving their posture over the ball, and also focused on their short games. Ariya’s putting noticeably improved.

“They’re that caliber of player,” said Chapman, who has worked with Brandel Chamblee, Kevin Na and Kristen Park. “You see very few like that that can play the tour.”

By the end of August, both players said they felt uncomfortable over the ball, and were trying to play their misses. It’s why each spent a few days with Chapman before Moriya flew east to Q-School.

“When you fix it, you need to practice and figure it out,” Moriya said at the Women’s Amateur. “That’s why I have to figure it out every morning – let’s see where the ball is going today.”

• • •

Sitting to the side of the swimming pool in Cleveland, Moriya fingers her iPhone. She cringes when she tells the story of the last one, which she recently left on a plane.

To maintain a sense of normalcy, both girls spend a large amount of time tethered to their phones. Ariya channels a Thai station similar to Hulu, an American website that streams TV shows and movies. When she doesn’t have a golf club in her hand, Ariya says, she’s usually watching Thai dramas or on Facebook.

“When I brush my teeth, I bring my phone in the bathroom,” Ariya said, jokingly. Such a crack becomes more common as their grasp of the language allows their humor to flourish.

Normalcy, however, is about to go out the window. Moriya will remain stateside with mother Narumon – their calm demeanors complement each other well – as she approaches the second stage of LPGA Q-School. Ariya arrives in Morocco in December with father Somboon to play LET Q-School.

The Jutanugarns’ story closely mirrors that of another Thai family – twins Aree and Naree Song, former junior phenoms who turned professional at 17. (They used to go by their Thai mother’s name Wongluekiet but switched to their South Korean father’s surname for simplicity.) When Naree, now 26 and an assistant coach at Rollins College, enrolled at Florida in 2003, Aree went to the LPGA – she was waved into Q-School a year early. Looking back, Naree called it an abrupt separation that required an adjustment period.

Naree has never met the Jutanugarns, but having been in those trenches, has followed their budding careers. Neither of the Songs plays much competitive golf anymore.

“The progress you make as a junior player, it’s going to slow down when you get to the pros,” Naree Song said. “You’re not going to win as often. I hope they can persevere and continue to work hard. It can be fulfilling as well.”

The Jutanugarns are a closely knit, spiritual family that finds churches on the road to give thanks for this life as often as possible. Occasionally, they can be spotted stepping away from a tee box to bow their heads in prayer before a round. Being separated for such a significant amount of time, for the first time in their lives, isn’t even the girls’ biggest concern.

When Moriya lost in the first round of match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, she tearfully accepted hugs from a handful of competitors who had gathered at the 18th green. Many of those waiting arms won’t be around anymore.

“You have to change your life,” Moriya said in a serious tone that carries a hint of worry. “You play the top amateurs, but when you change to pro, I don’t know what’s going on.”

The Jutanugarns always will have each other, but charting their own paths for a year may very well be a good change.

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