Date: February 19, 2015
Author: Mark Mayes

A star delayed, but not derailed


It’s almost two years ago to the day that Ariya Jutanugarn almost simultaneously stole the heart of world golf, then crushed her own in 15 quick minutes.

The then 17-year-old, in her international debut on home soil in the 2013 LPGA Thailand, had the tournament at her mercy with a two-shot lead on the 72nd hole.

But 15 agonising minutes later, she slinked off with a triple-bogey seven, effectively having handed the title to Inbee Park.

She had previously launched a petition to join the LPGA Tour that failed because she was not yet 18, but having won the LET’s Q-school, she soon won that tour’s Lalla Meryem Cup in March, 2013.

With interest piqued, the LPGA offered her four more starts as a non-member and, remarkably she repaid that faith by finishing no lower than fourth place and earning almost $450,000 – a figure that would have ranked her sixth on the money list had she been a member.

So by the time June 2013 rolled around, the Bangkok star had shone so brightly that she was among the favourites for the LPGA Championship and ranked 15th in the world.

Then a calamity that was to shape her golfing future, far worse than any triple-bogey ever could.

Playing a practice round with her elder sister Moriya, Ariya jogged down off a tee box when she lost her footing and fell, landing hard on her right shoulder and tearing the labrum.

Ariya needed surgery to repair her torn labrum. She was out for eight months but even when she returned last year, her immensely powerful swing was still clearly hampered.

Pain forced her to change her swing shape and the draw that made her a weekly threat had been replaced by a far less aggressive fade.

But that was then, and this is very much the now.

After winning her LPGA card by finishing tied for third, Jutanugarn was back to her old ways in this season’s first two starts.

A tie for 11th in Florida was followed by a playoff loss in the Bahamas a fortnight ago.

And there’s no sign of her breathtaking LPGA form tailing off in Melbourne with a quality four-under-par 69 to open the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open today.

Adapting quickly in her first Sandbelt appearance, Jutanugarn mixed seven hard-hitting birdies with three bogeys to sit handily after the first round.

And rather than play a straight bat, and with her power draw now back in harness, she was quick to confess her eagerness to make up lost time.

“I have to keep on that roll. I really want to keep it. I have a lot more confidence now. I can keep going,” she said.

“(My shoulder) is getting a lot better than last year. It’s better every week and it’s almost 100 per cent now.”

Asked if she was making up for lost time, the 19-year-old simply smiled and said: “Yes.”

Jutanugarn made mince meat of the par fives early in her round and chipped in for birdie on her third hole to set the tone.

“It was really nice today. My tee shots were good and my iron shots really helped me a lot. But I still missed some fairways because the course is really challenging,” she said.

“Normally I stop the ball every shot, but this tournament I have to hit 10-15 yards short of the pin and run the ball (towards the hole) … but I did it well.”

Clearly driven, Jutanugarn is eager for her fame to be derived from results, not the misfortunes of her late teens.

“People ask me about loss in Thailand all the time, still now.

“I want to be famous for this (playing well) not that.”

Stand by.