SHOAL CREEK, Ala. – Meltdown. Catastrophe. Choke job. Ariya Jutanugarn nearly had a starring role in what could’ve gone down as one of the most spectacular falls in major championship history. From up seven strokes with nine holes to play on Sunday of the U.S. Women’s Open, to down one shot in a two-hole playoff, television announcers took to discussing how a potential failure might derail her entire career.
But it wasn’t over. The player who applauds her opponents’ shots in the heat of battle hadn’t given it away yet. This wasn’t the same Ariya Jutanugarn who tripled the final hole at home in Thailand as a 17-year-old. Nor was it the same player who squandered away a two-shot lead at the ANA Inspiration two years ago. Jutanugarn didn’t panic when her trusty 2-iron went rogue. Didn’t hang her head in despair when she hit fliers out of the Bermuda rough. She might have smiled in disbelief. But she didn’t stop believing.
“I forgot the bad things,” she said.
It took four playoff holes for Jutanugarn, known as “May,” to finally shake Hyo-Joo Kim, a former major winner who hadn’t played like one lately until Shoal Creek. Storms miraculously stayed away on Sunday in Birmingham, but Kim made it rain on the greens, pouring in miles of putts to pile on the pressure with a bogey-free 67.
Jutanugarn’s stroll around Shoal Creek ended with one swing: a big miss right off the 10th tee with 3-wood into the hazard.
“After that, I kind of played a little bit scared,” she said, benching both her 3-wood and aggressive play. Jutanugarn went out in 32 and came in with a shocking 41, sending her into her second playoff in three weeks.
Vision54 coaches Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott were exhausted by the time they got off the Jutanugarn rollercoaster. Pacing in front of the television.
One thing they saw that was different this time: Jutanugarn didn’t panic.
“The one thing with May, and equally with Mo,” said Nilsson, “they have a tremendous amount of grit and never giving up. They are trained in that as well.”
The two coaches told the Jutanugarn sisters at the start of the week that attitude would be their 15th club. The advice proved paramount when May’s clubs didn’t arrive in time for a Monday practice round, and she began the championship having laid eyes on only nine holes of Shoal Creek.
Heading into the playoff having blown a gigantic lead, Jutanugarn refocused and recommitted.
“I feel like I have (one) last chance to make myself proud,” she said, “do the shot in front of me.”
When Jutanugarn rose to No. 1 in the world for the first time last summer, she admittedly wasn’t ready for it. The rise from 10 consecutive missed cuts to mountain top came at warp speed. She felt uncomfortable in the limelight.
She’s not in it for the golf or the glory
Did she even want this?
On Monday at the CME Group Tour Championship last November, Jutanguarn told Nilsson and Marriott that it cost $350 to educate a child for an entire year at the schools she helps to fund. They gave her $350 on the spot.
That’s the why part for Jutanugarn. To become No. 1 and stay there, she needed to know why she was doing this in the first place. Money and trophies weren’t enough. She needed to feel deeply in her heart and in her head what she wanted out of this game. She’d go on to win the CME.
“She needed a higher purpose,” Nilsson said.
It’s no surprise to anyone who has been around Jutanugarn that children would be part of that purpose. She lights up like the moon when she’s around them.
There’s a child-like innocence about Jutanugarn. She never was a robotic prodigy. But like many of her peers, we’re watching her mature on a worldwide stage.
Shoal Creek was never going to define Jutanugarn. It might have broken her heart for a bit. Would’ve definitely taken up permanent residence in her mind. But she would’ve learned from it. Grown from it. Because we’ve already seen that resiliency from the now two-time major winner.
“If anyone has the total package right now,” said Marina Alex, “that’s definitely her.”
The Stunner at Shoal Creek will go down as one of the most memorable Sundays in U.S. Women’s Open history. Jutanugarn became the championship’s first Thai winner, crossing the $6 million mark in career earnings in the process.
She can dominate this tour if she wants to. Like other World No. 1s before her, Jutanugarn sees what winning can do for others. And that makes her even more special.
“I feel like I want to inspire the kids,” she said. “Not because I want them to play golf, but because I want them to have a good life.”