Date: February 16, 2019
Author: John Huggan

HUGGAN: Ariya a must watch

News flash: the world’s number-one woman golfer is not going to win the 2019 ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open here at The Grange Golf Club. Not even close. When Ariya Jutanugarn wrapped-up her third round 72 with a routine par-4 she was barely visible, tied for a lowly 50th place on one-over par for the 54-holes played. 

All of which was the result of a round that contained a curious mixture of breathtaking shot-making – no one in the women’s game can compress the ball quite like the 23-year old Thai – and, by her own admission, some uncharacteristic sloppiness.

“It was a bit up-and-down,” she sighed. “I missed a few greens when I shouldn’t have. But overall, it was pretty good. This is only my second tournament of the year. And a new golf course for me. So I will keep working away and hope I get better. I’m working on my commitment to each shot. I haven’t played much. In the three weeks since my last event I mostly did nothing. When I came here it was like starting over again. I haven’t worked on my commitment for a long while. So everything is new.”

Well, almost everything. Instantly familiar to any golf fan paying attention over the last few years is the prodigious length Jutanugarn generates with a set of clubs that does not include either a driver or any of the hybrids that heavily populate just about every other bag on the LPGA Tour. The only wood she uses has a number “3” on the bottom and her only other headcover conceals a 2-iron – a club seen only rarely in the modern women’s game. 

Playing alongside Brittany Altomare of the United States – who, though hopelessly outgunned, shot 69 – Jutanugarn regularly hit the longer tee-shot. Which is why the driver stays in her locker. Quite simply, she does not require to bring it out of its long hibernation. Although the notion that she is giving up much of her natural edge is hard to get away from.

“I wasn’t tempted to bring out my driver,” she confirms. “On this course I don’t need it. So there was no point in carrying it. I think the main key for me this year is I never think about the outcome. I want to be a happy golfer. I want to really enjoy myself with like every moment in my life, and that's like who I want to be.’”

Such a philosophy is difficult to argue with. And it seems to be working, in contrast to the experience Jutanugarn endured in 2017, when she first ascended to the number-one slot. That achievement was immediately followed by five missed cuts and a premature withdrawal. In contrast, the former U.S. Junior Girls’ champion was clearly the dominant figure on a 2018 LPGA Tour that nevertheless produced 26 different winners. Three times she tasted victory, including a hard-earned win at the U.S. Women’s Open, where she squandered a seven-shot lead before eventually prevailing in a four-hole play-off with Kim Hyo-Joo from the Republic of Korea.

“I feel really proud of myself because I still fight all the way to finish,” she said at the time. “Even though I have really poor back nine, but my playoff I fight every shot, and I learned a lot. I feel like if I won by five strokes, I'm not going to learn anything. But this week I learned a lot.”

Indeed, it was something of a seminal victory, one that revealed a dogged heart and clear-thinking mind as the equals of already stunning physical abilities. In other words, Jutanugarn was confirmed as the complete golfer. 

Still, winning the biggest event in women’s golf was merely the highlight of a commanding season. In 2018, Jutanugarn won the season-long Race to the CMB Globe and a $1m bonus. Not surprisingly, she was the LPGA’s player of the year and won the Vare Trophy with a scoring average of 69.415 – en route, she shot 57 rounds in the 60s and made 470 birdies. In all, she compiled 17 top-ten finishes and topped the money-list with earnings of $2,743,949. That was nearly $1.2m ahead of runner-up Minjee Lee.

But those numbers and statistics are not the most impressive aspect of Jutanugarn’s rise to the top of the women’s game. For that, you must see her swing up close and savour the sound generated at the moment club meets ball. Only then can full appreciation of her talent be attained. The trajectory and penetration flight of the shots are things of beauty to be savoured. 

So yes, Jutanugarn will be a relatively anonymous “dew sweeper” in the final round of this championship. But she is worth an early Sunday morning rise and a trip to The Grange, if only to hear that distinctive “crunch” at impact. Just a brilliant player.