Ariya Jutanugarn relaxed starting 2019 at No. 1, but still yearns to improve

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Ariya Jutanugarn relaxed starting 2019 at No. 1, but still yearns to improve

LPGA Tour

Ariya Jutanugarn relaxed starting 2019 at No. 1, but still yearns to improve

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Four days. That’s all the rest World No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn enjoyed over the offseason with a boatload of sponsorship obligations back in Thailand. It’s no wonder she arrived at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions weary and nursing a sore throat.

Even so, Jutanugarn looked different. More at ease, more happy-to-be-here than she has at previous season openers.

“My life is great,” she said. “Not because I won three tournaments last year.”

That helps, of course. But the 23-year-old sounded almost philosophical when comparing the start of this season to 2018. She doesn’t know how long this will last – her reign at No. 1, her career, life itself – but she learned something last year. Whatever happens, she can get it back.

Ariya and older sister Mo played a nine-hole practice round on Monday at Tranquilo Golf Club with Vision54 coaches Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott. They then had separate putting sessions with short-game coach Gareth Raflewski.

“She’s so much more mature now,” said Raflewski. “Now she’ll ask ‘Why?’ She’s become so much more in control of her own game – starting to understand all of the little nuances.”

Jutanugarn’s coaches all understand that she likes to keep it simple. When Raflewski began working with Jutanugarn, he kept numbers out of their discussion. She’s a feel player and numbers didn’t compute.

Now he puts two numbers on the screen for her to reference while practicing: face angle and start line.

When the face angle number hit 0.0, Jutanugarn took a step back and smiled. Dead perfect. Then she did it again.

It’s the sort of performance one would expect from a player ranked No. 1 in putting. But it has been a learning process. Her tendency, Raflewski says, is to aim left and manipulate the face. He put together several drills that are designed to control the clubface, and she’s become a master at it.

While Jutanugarn remains a feel player, she now understands that what feels good might not be correct.

Last week Raflewski flew down to Orlando, Fla., to work with Jutanguarn on her chipping. They typically meet Monday morning of tournament weeks to have a short-game session, even if she won the day before. Raflewski likens their Monday maintenance work to seeing a trainer at the gym.

Over the offseason, Jutanugarn put a new Callaway Epic driver in the bag. She likes it, using it twice a day during competition in Thailand. During a practice round at Lake Nona last week, Jutanugarn drove the par-4 fifth green from the back tees – 359 yards. Nilsson happened to film her delightful and amusing reaction. Jutanugarn hits driver so infrequently she seemed in shock by her own strength.

Last season Jutanugarn didn’t feel comfortable hitting less than full wedges. Driver, of course, brings more of those shots into play. It’s one of the reasons putting driver in the bag didn’t make sense strategically.

Jutanugarn has focused on tightening up her wedges with instructor Chris Mayson. The feel player has a better understanding mechanically what needs to be done to get more out of her scoring clubs.

“It’s something I should’ve known five years ago,” she admitted.

The step that could move her closer to hitting more drivers. Then again, she proved last season that she doesn’t need it.

In addition to knocking off the usual rust, Jutanugarn’s team of coaches helped new caddie Daniel Taylor get up to speed on the nuances of his boss. Taylor, who will marry Pernilla Lindberg later this month on a mountaintop in New Zealand, takes the place of Les Luark.

Jutanugarn has long considered Luark to be like family. And the pair occasionally fought, as family members do, not speaking for days at a time. Jutanugarn said the healthiest thing for both of them was to try something new.

That’s actually a big goal for the year – keep things fresh and interesting. Jutanugarn believes her best year to date was 2016 because she played with so much freedom as so many things happened to her for the first time.

She hopes to recapture some of that as she digs deeper into her vast potential. A big difference this time around: She knows what to expect. From the media, from fans, from the tour, from herself.

Jutanugarn is growing up.

“I have to,” she said.

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