There’s more at stake than just a victory for 17-year-old phenom Ariya Jutanugarn at the Kingsmill Championship this week.
Also hanging in the balance is the possibility of LPGA membership and the reunion of her Thai family.
Jutanugarn jumped out to a hot start Thursday, seizing the first-round lead with a 7-under-par 64. If she wins, she will almost surely petition the LPGA again to seek a waiver of the tour’s rule requiring a member be at least 18. There’s a two-year LPGA membership she can claim with a victory, but only if she’s granted a waiver of the tour’s age restriction. Jutanugarn doesn’t turn 18 until Nov. 23. She petitioned the LPGA last summer for a waiver so that she could go to LPGA Q-School with her 18-year-old sister, Moriya. Ariya was still 16 when she petitioned and was denied.
LPGA commissioner Mike Whan is on record saying he wants to see a 16- or 17-year-old win before considering granting a waiver. Given what Jutanugarn is already proving, the commissioner would be hard pressed to deny a second petition for a waiver should Jutanugarn win this week.
With the waiver’s denial, the family was temporarily split this year. Moriya, co-winner of LPGA’s Q-School, travels the LPGA with her mother. Ariya, who won the Ladies European Tour Q-School last winterm, travels the LET with her father.
“It was a little bit sad, because normally we aren’t separate,” Moriya told Golfchannel.com
Moriya leads the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year point standings.
Ariya leads the LET’s Order of Merit, where she won earlier this year. She also leads that tour in scoring.
In just three LPGA starts this year on two sponsor invites and one Monday qualifying berth, Ariya has finished second, third and fourth. She has earned $328,643. If she were a tour member, she would be eighth on the LPGA money list.
If Ariya were an LPGA member, she would lead the LET and the LPGA in scoring. Through 13 rounds, Ariya’s LPGA scoring average is 68.61. Inbee Park and Stacy Lewis came into this week leading the LPGA in scoring with 69.5 scoring averages.
If Ariya doesn’t win, a good finish won't bolster her bid to avoid Q-School and win LPGA membership next year. According to LPGA rules, a non-member can earn membership for 2014 by earning the equivalent of top 40 money by the end of this season. However, a player must be 18 for the non-member winnings to count. Also, only money won in events without a cut counts. Because Ariya isn't 18, the money she wins this year doesn't count toward top-40 equivalency money. Ariya will be eligible for Q-School late this year.