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Jutanugarn Comes Of Age – GGP’s Player of the Year

Ariya Jutanugarn – Global Golf Post’s Female Player of the Year

By Steve Eubanks – Global Golf Post

As Ariya Jutanugarn stood on stage at this year’s Rolex awards banquet after the first round of the LPGA’s final event, the smile on her face and the gratitude in her voice said far more than words. Her poise and grace, a confident ease those who have known her since her junior golf days had rarely seen, announced the rebirth of this just-turned-21-year-old.

Ariya Jutanugarn (Photo Twitter)

Like a student returning from college or a marine coming home after boot camp, the woman on that stage bore little resemblance to the girl we all knew just one year ago. The nervous whispers had vanished, as had the fidgeting fingers and the eyes that would dart from side to side as she searched for a quick exit from any spotlight. Upon receiving the Heather Farr Perseverance Award, Jutanugarn strode to the stage, commanding the room and, in the process, shedding what was left of the unsure child who used to shrink behind her older sister.

Her only awkward moment that week came three days after the banquet when, standing behind the 18th green in Naples, Fla., Jutanugarn couldn’t hold the Race to the CME Globe or Player of the Year trophies aloft because her hands were filled with the Plexiglas cube housing the $1 million in cash she’d just won.

“Winning the Player of the Year has always been a dream,” she said. “I just didn’t believe it would come true this soon.”

Neither did we. For just more than three years, observers wondered if this bundle of Thai talent would mature into a champion or flame out like so many gifted prodigies of the past. Her swing was a masterful blend of power and precision, the kind of motion that coaches film and show again and again to students.

Ariya Jutanugarn (photo Zimbio.com)

Jutanugarn is one of only a handful of women who compress the golf ball with every club. And if you ask anyone, including Joanna Klatten and Lexi Thompson, who led the year-end driving-distance stats, to name the longest hitter in the women’s game, they will tell you it’s Jutanugarn. The reason she finished 22nd at a mere 263.75 yards is because she hit 2-iron off the tee all year.

“The driver is coming out next year,” she said after the season was over and she could reflect on her five wins, which included three victories in a row and one major championship. “I promise,” she added with a wide grin.

It was a far cry from the pained smile she forced out in early April after blowing a two-shot lead in the final holes of the ANA Inspiration, another meltdown to go with the devastating triple bogey on the final hole of the 2013 Honda LPGA Thailand to lose by a shot to Inbee Park.

Later in the summer of 2013, Ariya, age 17 at the time, fell off a tee box at the LPGA Championship while chasing her older sister Moriya around like a kid at recess. A torn labrum required surgery and sidelined the talented teen for nine months.

It could have been a career-ender, just as the meltdown in Rancho Mirage, Calif., could have dealt an insurmountable psychological blow.

“To be honest, after ANA I felt like maybe I was good enough to win a tournament but I never expected to be in this position today,” she said at the close of 2016.

There is no accounting for resilience; no machine to test its tolerances or measure its outer limits. Jutanugarn kept grinding, working with her coaches, Gary Gilchrist on the physical and Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott on the mental, until she broke through in May at the Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic in Prattville, Ala.

After that, winning became a habit. She fired four rounds in the 60s to win in her very next start at Kingsmill. One week later she won the inaugural LPGA Volvik Championship in Michigan in runaway fashion. In her next start two weeks later she closed with a 66 at Sahalee Country Club to finish one shot out of a playoff at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, an event that had all the earmarks of an instant classic.

In July, she won a major, the Ricoh Women’s British Open, by three shots before another hiccup had everyone holding their breath. Representing Thailand in the Olympics, Jutanugarn was the first-round leader but withdrew in the middle of the third round after making three bogeys, two doubles and three triples. She said it was a knee injury, which set off alarms for anyone who witnessed Tiger Woods’ battles with weight-bearing joints.

But Jutanugarn skipped past any potential concerns by winning her fifth title of the year, the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open, in her very first post-Olympic start.

“Last year I missed 10 cuts in a row but now I feel really appreciative,” Jutanugarn said. “Because if that hadn’t happened I’m not sure I would have won all this stuff this year.”

Those were sober words. Reflective words. Adult words. The words of a forged champion.

They are one of the main reasons why Ariya Jutanugarn is The Post’s 2016 female Player of the Year.

Republished with permission by Global Golf Post