Nichols: Ariya Jutanugarn won’t sidestep questions about backstopping

Bill Murray Ariya Jutanugarn United States Golf Association USGA

Nichols: Ariya Jutanugarn won’t sidestep questions about backstopping

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Nichols: Ariya Jutanugarn won’t sidestep questions about backstopping

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CHARLESTON, S.C. ‒ Ariya Jutanugarn paused between bites of Charleston crab cake and buttermilk fried chicken to address the subject of cheating. Her eyes were big, and they were locked so intently with mine that I fought the urge to look away. There are many words in the English language that Jutanugarn does not understand. There are times when she’s shy, and times that she keeps her answers simple and rehearsed to keep more formal interviews moving along.

This was not one of those times.

“For what?” asked Jutanugarn. “What’s the point? For an extra $2,000? I don’t play for money. I don’t care about money. I play for the kids.”

Jutanugarn, who recently dropped to No. 2 in the world, had flown from Singapore to Charleston (via South Korea and Atlanta) last week for U.S. Women’s Open Preview Day. She was fried from the trip but a trooper for what amounted to a day-long obligation as defending champion. While playing at home in Thailand last month, she’d been part of a backstopping controversy with Amy Olson that created a social media frenzy. The tweet that caught fire, posted by an LPGA caddie who has since apologized to her, included #Cheating.

Jutanugarn said she was mad for a couple days, but mostly for Olson’s sake. Since her rise to the top, the 10-time LPGA winner has taught herself not to get caught up in what those outside her close circle are saying. But she worried about Olson.

Two years ago Olson and Jutanugarn squared off against each other at the Lorena Ochoa Match Play Championship in Mexico City. Jutanugarn said they were so involved in a conversation about their faith that she lost track of how their match stood. (Jutanugarn won 5 and 4). To those who say the two would’ve acted differently in a match-play situation or on the final hole of a tournament, Jutanugarn couldn’t be sure.

“If it had been anyone else,” she said, “I might not have known what they were thinking. We know who we are and what matters.”

Jutanugarn, 23, takes her position as a role model seriously. She doesn’t go to bars. Doesn’t throw clubs or F-bombs. But she said multiple times during a sinfully good lunch at Magnolia’s that she wants to do all of those things. That deep down she’s just like everybody else.

Only she can’t be.

“What would the kids say?” she asked.

That question is at the center of everything Jutanugarn does. She views the ups and downs she’s had in her career as a reason for young people to listen to her. If someone skates through life without struggles, she asked, can you learn from them?

When Jutanugarn checked off a list of career goals in the span of a year – win an LPGA event, a major, Player of the Year and rise to No. 1 – she struggled with motivation. What’s left to gain?

But then she realized something: More people will listen to her when she’s at the top of the game. More importantly, they’ll open their checkbooks and give. And that’s ultimately what Jutanugarn cares about – elevating the lives of children in Thailand.

Earlier that morning she had teed off cold on the 10th hole at Country Club of Charleston with a 2-iron. Chris Solomon and Neil Schuster of No Laying Up were along for the ride and struck up a conversation on the 12th tee about smiling before each shot. Schuster said something about feeling stupid when he smiles (after a poor shot), and Jutanugarn ran with it, accusing him of calling her stupid. What followed was a hilarious exchange, with Jutanugarn delivering one deadpan jab after another.

When Solomon asked if she could offer any tips, Jutanugarn shot back, “Don’t ask stupid people.”

Walking off the green, Solomon turned to the more serious topic of backstopping. No Laying Up was at the center of that controversy, fueling the debate over whether the LPGA pair should be penalized.

Jutanugarn didn’t stray from her original comments on the subject and took Solomon’s questions in stride. She bantered a bit more on camera before heading downtown for lunch.

The No Laying Up pair appreciated the way Jutanugarn punched back on camera, offering up a side of her personality that doesn’t come across in traditional interviews. They confessed there were times they weren’t sure if she was joking.

The truth is Jutanugarn had never heard of No Laying Up before that day, and still hadn’t a clue when she sat down to eat. She got out her phone to look them up on Twitter.

“And the USGA put them to play with me?” she asked, referring to backstop-gate.

She laughed.

At her core, Jutanugarn is a sensitive person. She cries sometimes on the golf course when no one is looking. The last time golf brought her to tears was a couple of weeks ago.

“I’ll tell you about it after it passes,” she said.

Strangers sometimes say outlandish things. She has learned how to ignore what people say while still caring how they feel.

She’s stressed about finding a new caddie and playing well enough to win again. She’s prepared to fight as long as it takes, often asking herself what 33-year-old Ariya would think of how she’s handling things.

Like many players on top, Jutanugarn takes care of the people who are close to her financially, but that’s done with a full heart.

“I know I’m not out here for myself,” she said.

Jutanugarn likes to keep her game and her life simple. She reads the Bible and prays daily.

Quality time with the LPGA’s most complete player reveals a deep-seeded wisdom and wit that’s vastly underappreciated.

“I start from scratch,” she said. “I have nothing. Right now, life is too good.” Gwk

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