ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Perhaps you noticed three weeks ago when Ariya Jutanugarn, 20, won her first LPGA event. It was a sweetly redemptive story. Jutanugarn was once the top-ranked amateur in the world but had lost her way on tour; in 2015 she missed the cut at 10 consecutive tournaments and got to the point where, says Jutanugarn, “I was scared to hit the ball.” The breakthrough at the Yokohama LPGA Classic washed that all away. When Jutanugarn followed up with another win, at Kingsmill, it was validation that this big-time talent had truly arrived. Now, having blown away the field at the inaugural LPGA Volvik Championship to make it three in a row, it’s clear that something special is happening.
“I always said it would be scary if she ever realized how good she is,” says Jutanugarn’s friend and mentor Christina Kim, who finished second at the Volvik, five shots back. “Well, it’s here, and as expected, it’s pretty damn frightening.”
Jutanugarn clubbed into submission a firm, fast, fiery Travis Pointe Country Club, playing the par-5s in 8-under, including a crucial eagle on the 18th hole on Saturday that gave her back the lead after a shaky round in high winds. All the more impressive is that she didn’t carry a driver on a tight, 6,700 yard course. “She obviously doesn’t need one,” said world number one Lydia Ko, who played with Jutanugarn over the first two rounds. Even when she hit driver Ko was routinely 20 or 30 yards behind Jutanugarn. “It’s pretty incredible the way she attacks the ball.”
The ferocity of Jutanugarn’s swing is balanced by the softness in her personality. She’s quiet and shy with a girlish smile, but her low-key vibe was helpful amidst the final round pressure. Jutanugarn exuded such calm her playing partner Jessica Korda says,”I thought she was bored. She sat down on 16 tee and 18 tee, just chillin’ in the shade, told me to come sit down with her like we were having a picnic. She made [winning] look so easy, I’m speechless. I definitely didn’t see 5-under out there today.”
Following her closing 67, which pushed her to -15 for the week, Jutanugarn admitted that she felt none of the nerves that had bedeviled her while closing out her first two wins. That hard-won self-belief is the culmination of a journey that began in her home country at the 2007 Honda LPGA Thailand, when at the age of 11 Jutanugarn became the youngest player ever to qualify for an LPGA event. After a dominant junior career Jutanugarn turned pro in 2013 and had immediate success but her ascent was interrupted late in the year when she injured her shoulder. This wasn’t the typical golf ding; Jutanugarn took a tumble while chasing her older sister, Moriya, trying to douse her with a water bottle. The injury necessitated surgery, and upon her return Ariya struggled with her swing and confidence, cratering last year with all those missed cuts.
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“It was a dark time,” says Moriya, who is also a fixture on the LPGA; after finishing 27th at the Volvik she followed her kid sis in the gallery on the back nine. “She is finally back. Maybe not all the way, but 90%, and that’s enough.”
Ariya pulled herself out of her slump, she says, thanks to hard work and the unwavering faith of her caddie, Les Luark, whom she calls her best friend. Asked specifically what was wrong with her game, she says with a laugh,”My brain.” Of Luark, she added, “The only thing he always tell me is he trusted me,” she says. “It’s like, Why am I not going to trust myself?”
Did those struggles make her tougher?
“Yeah, a lot.”
Jutanugarn’s belief was tested at this year’s Dinah Shore, where she led most of the way on Sunday but bogeyed the final three holes and was beaten by Ko’s epic wedge shot on the 72nd hole. Rather than be devastated, Jutanugarn was encouraged—if she was good enough to lead a major championship for 69 holes, surely she was good enough to finally win a tournament. That revelation led to the awesome unleashing of talent and will that has very quickly reshaped the LPGA landscape. On Sunday evening Kim teared up twice talking about the revival of her friend. “She’s such a special person and she’s fought so hard to get here,” she said.
Jutanugarn will be the favorite in two weeks at the next major, the Women’s PGA Championship. Given that she has no weaknesses in her game, Jutanugarn might be the favorite at every tournament for the next decade or so. “There honestly hasn’t been a player like her in my generation,” says Kim. “The way she powers the ball is remarkable and she has such imagination around the golf course and incredible touch.”
After Jutanugarn’s latest victory, Korda offered a shorter scouting report, one that nicely captures the awe that is suddenly sweeping the LPGA: “Holy cow.”