With a 2-iron, Ariya climbed out of golfing hell

By Randall MellMarch 30, 2017, 12:12 am

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – When Ariya Jutanugarn first pulled 2-iron from her bag, sparks should have flown.

A choir of angels should have broken into song.

It was like King Arthur drawing Excalibur from the stone.

Something wondrous began happening when Jutanugarn discovered the enchanting qualities this relic from a bygone era possessed.

All those demon doubts haunting her on tee boxes, Jutanugarn started slaying them with this new weapon.

She used it to fight her way out of golfing hell.

The 2-iron made its way into Jutanugarn’s bag two summers ago, when she was mired in a slump that would see her miss 10 consecutive cuts. Back then, fellow players were whispering things no player wants spoken about her. They were whispering that Jutanugarn might have the “driving yips.”

With Jutanugarn returning to the ANA Inspiration this week, the focus is on how far she has come since collapsing over the final three holes last year. Her story is about how quickly she bounced back to win three straight LPGA titles in May. She went on to claim five titles overall last year and win the Rolex Player of the Year Award.

Vision 54’s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott were vital in helping Jutanugarn rebound as her mental coaches. So was Gary Gilchrist, her swing coach.

Her bounce back, though, actually began before the ANA last year.

Really, Jutanugarn’s rebound started the day her caddie, Les Luark, introduced her to a TaylorMade RSI 2-iron back in the summer of 2015. He put the sword in her bag. She used it to pierce the darkness, to slash open the first splintering rays of light showing her the way out of her terrible slump.

“The 2-iron has been awesome for Ariya,” Marriott said. “Kudos to Les for coming up with it.’

Luark began caddying for Jutanugarn amid her slump in ’15. After a shoulder injury, which required surgery and a troublingly long recovery, Jutanugarn swooned. It was stunning how far she fell, because she was such a can’t-miss phenom before.

The injury changed her swing. She changed it to avoid lingering pain, but she began hitting her driver all over the planet. The malady spread, moving through the rest of her game.

ANA Inspiration: Articles, photos and videos

Luark saw that as soon as he picked up Jutanugarn’s bag.

“She was so focused around her tee-shot issues,” Luark said. “She couldn’t do anything else. She couldn’t practice anything else, or focus on anything else.

“So, just getting to where she had some confidence on the tee, that allowed her to start looking at the other parts of her game. It got her started going in the direction that led to her winning last year. Without the 2-iron, I don’t know if she would have gotten to that stage, at least not as quickly as she did.”

Jutanugarn, 21 now, didn’t want to play the ShopRite Classic in 2015, because the course was too claustrophobic for her. That’s why Luark suggested the 2-iron. He saw how comfortably she hit her 3-iron, and he went to TaylorMade to have the equipment crew shape a 2-iron for her. She teed it up at ShopRite and was pleasantly surprised how far she could hit that 2-iron, even though she missed yet another cut there.

Jutanugarn didn’t immediately shake her slump or quit missing cuts, but there was finally a building block. There was hope.

“A couple weeks using it, the 2-iron was her favorite club,” Luark said.

Who has a 2-iron as a favorite club?

Actually, who else even hits a 2-iron in the women’s game?

Laura Davies might be it.

Luark says Jutanugarn fretted when he checked her golf bag overnight into the clubhouse storage room at the Kia Classic last week. She hates leaving it anywhere overnight. She worried about arriving in the morning to find the 2-iron was gone.

“I don’t think I could play if it wasn’t there,” she told Luark.

It was there.

“It’s a go-to club she can trust,” Nilsson said. “She knows she can always put it in play.”

Jutanugarn doesn’t just put it in play. She bombs it. Luark estimates she is carrying it 230 yards this week, and that on firm fairways it can run out to 270 yards. That’s longer than most players will hit their drivers this week.

It’s part of the reason Jutanugarn won’t carry a driver again this week. She hasn’t put driver in her bag for a tournament round the entire year. Still, she can belt her 3-wood past most players’ drivers and hit her 2-iron with a lot of players’ drivers.

Plus, Jutanugarn hits 2-iron so straight.

“I really like it, because I feel like I can control it,” Jutanugarn said. “When I want to hit it in the fairway, I feel comfortable with the 2-iron.”

Gilchrist says Jutanugarn’s miss comes when she gets too steep with her swing. She hits down so hard on the ball. It’s why her iron play is so strong but she struggled with the driver.

The thing is, Jutanugarn is hitting a lot of drivers in practice and pro-ams now. She’s a lot more comfortable with it again, and more tempted to put it in play.

“When Yani Tseng was No. 1, she would hit her driver 30 yards past the average player,” Gilchrist said. “Ariya can hit her driver 20 yards past Yani. That’s insane.”

But, Gilchrist is in no rush to push the driver on Jutanugarn.

“Ariya could make twice as much money as she does if she started hitting driver, because she would become this long-hitting phenomenon,” Gilchrist said. “People would think it’s unbelievable how far this woman’s hitting the ball, but if you’ve got a winning formula, why change it? There’s a risk. If you lose your confidence, nobody’s talking about you at all.”

Jutanugarn’s formula has her on the verge of becoming the No. 1 player in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. A victory this week gets her there. And an enchanting 2-iron helped set this all up.

Getty Images

Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

Getty Images

Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

Getty Images

DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

Getty Images

LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.