SHOAL CREEK, Ala. – The first time Ariya Jutanugarn won a major, the government of Thailand asked her to fly home. She’s kind of a big deal in Bangkok and beyond, to the point that her face used to be on Gatorade bottles.
Jutanugarn doesn’t come across as someone particularly impressed by her own fame. The only drama she’s interested in comes in the form of her favorite Thai TV shows. When her game is clicking, like it is here at steamy Shoal Creek, the player known as “May” sort of nonchalantly cruises around the golf course, outdriving opponents by 30 to 40 yards with a 3-wood and politely nodding to the sound of applause. The most emotion she’s ever shown on an 18th green came when older sister Moriya broke through for her first victory last April.
Jutanugarn woke up Saturday at 4 a.m., having missed the message about tee times being delayed an hour. She arrived at Shoal Creek to finish the second round of the U.S. Women’s Open four strokes behind Aussie Sarah Jane Smith and left with a four-stroke lead after a third-round 67. It truly was May’s Day.
“She’s a spectacular player,” said Smith. “Her length is just one part of her game. She hits it a long way, but her short game is impeccable. She rolls the ball beautifully. She’s just the whole package.”
Not the week to complain
Vision 54 coaches Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott sent a text message to the Jutanguarn sisters at the start of the week saying that the players with the best attitude this week are going to have a great advantage. This is not the week to complain.
“We sent a clear and direct text,” Marriott said. “Your 15th club is going to be attitude.”
So when Ariya Jutanugarn’s clubs didn’t arrive with her on Monday, she took it in stride. When Tuesday’s practice round was canceled due the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto, she was grateful for a day to veg out on Thai dramas. And when she could only see the back nine of Shoal Creek before teeing off on Thursday, she responded with an opening 67.
“I try to feel proud of myself every day,” said Jutanugarn, who was proud on Saturday of the way she fought for every shot and stayed focused literally from sunup to sundown.
The afternoon began to unravel for Smith, who is new to this stage, after a dropped shot at the par-3 eighth, when she failed to get it up and down from the bunker. Jutanguarn took the outright lead for the first time on Saturday at the turn.
It was at the par-5 11th that Jutanugarn showed her ultimate strength, striking a gorgeous 4-iron to 15 feet and then two-putting for a stress-free birdie, building her lead to two. The effortless birdie created a momentum shift that continued to build with birdies on Nos. 13, 14 and 15.
Sunday’s penultimate group features a pair of Kims – one a major winner and one a major rookie. Mother Nature might be the only factor that could slow her down, as afternoon storms are in the forecast.
Like Shoal Creek, Jutanugarn didn’t use a driver at Woburn.
Hyo Joo Kim, a three-time winner on the LPGA, shot 61 in the first round of the 2014 Evian Championship, the lowest round in major championship history. She went on to win the event at age 19 in her ninth LPGA start. Hyo Joo finds herself six shots back in solo third after a third-round 68.
Meanwhile Ji-Hyun Kim, a 26-year-old South Korean competing in her first championship, has competed in only four LPGA events prior to Shoal Creek. Her first KLPGA title came last season and she has since added three more. Ji-Hyun sits in solo fourth at 5 under after carding a 70.
Coronation may come early Sunday
The Jutanugarn coronation could come early Sunday. Mother Nature might be the only factor that could slow her down, as afternoon storms are in the forecast.
Of Jutanugarn’s eight wins, she has held the 54-hole lead seven times. That includes the 2016 Ricoh Women’s British Open, the last major she expected to win. Like Shoal Creek, Jutanugarn didn’t use a driver at Woburn. She has, however, talked about using driver more this year to Marriott and Nilsson, and eventually, it will be more of an asset. It’s coming, they said. But not this week.
“She can win golf tournaments with a lot of strategy now,” said Marriott, “and then when the driver does come into play, watch out.”
When Gary Gilchrist started working with Jutanugarn in February of 2016, he couldn’t believe he was watching a player who had missed 10 consecutive cuts the year prior.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.
But Jutanugarn was, indeed, lost. She took driver out of the bag and surrounded herself with a new band of believers. Confidence keeps Jutanugarn from overthinking, Gilchrist said. And when she’s confident, she gets more aggressive. Sunday at Shoal Creek is sure to be a beautiful mixture of power and finesse.
And who knows, the affable Smith might have something left up her sleeve.
“Well, I have nothing to lose tomorrow,” said Smith. “I’m happy with the way I handled my nerves today. … I’ve just got to give myself a chance.”