Ariya Jutanugarn is radiating with confidence she seemed to have completely lost just a year ago.
With her victory Sunday at the Volvik Championship, Jutanugarn made history, becoming the first player to make her first three LPGA titles consecutive victories.
Jutanugarn, 20, blew away the field on the back nine at Travis Pointe Country Club in Ann Arbor, Mich., to win in a five-shot rout.
“Ariya is very difficult to describe,” said Christina Kim, who finished second. “There really hasn't been a player like her, honestly, in my generation. The way that she just powers the ball, it's remarkable. She's got such imagination around the golf course and incredible touch. It’s really, really cool to see how far she's come.”
Jutanugarn is the first player to win three LPGA titles in a row since Inbee Park did so in 2013.
“She’s going to be unstoppable,” Kim said.
At this time a year ago, Jutanugarn was mired in a rookie slump that would see her miss 10 consecutive cuts. With Sunday’s victory, she climbed to No. 10 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
Just a little more than a month ago, Jutanugarn was two shots ahead with three holes to go at the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship. She blew the lead, bogeying all three holes to lose to Lydia Ko. The championship ended with Jutanugarn snap-hooking her final drive into the water.
Now Jutanugarn’s aiming to make her fourth consecutive victory a major.
After taking this next week off, Jutanugarn will head to Seattle to tee it up at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Sahalee.
“I badly want to win my first major,” Jutanugarn said.
Oddsmakers just may make Jutanugarn the betting favorite with Ko there. On Sunday in Michigan, Jutanugarn closed out with a bogey-free 5-under-par 67. She pulled away on the back nine making four birdies over a five-hole stretch.
“I’m speechless,” said Jessica Korda, who trailed Jutanugarn by just one shot starting the final round. “That was amazing.”
Jutanugarn was a teen phenom from Thailand who struggled to return from surgery after tearing the labrum in her right shoulder in the summer of 2013, but there’s more to her rebound than that the return of physical skill.
“Getting more and more confident,” Jutanugarn said.
Kim remembers talking to Jutanugarn amid the rookie’s run of 10 consecutive missed cuts last year.
“She was really, really distraught,” Kim said. “I was like, `If you had any idea how good of a golfer you are . . . It’s unbelievable.”
Jutanugarn admitted fighting nerves losing the ANA Inspiration. Her collapse at Mission Hills added to questions about her ability to close out leads. Three years before that she blew a chance to win her first LPGA title at the Honda event in Thailand in equally heartbreaking fashion. She took a two-shot lead to the final hole there, but she watched her homeland wince and groan, instead. She made triple bogey and lost to Inbee Park.
While Jutanugarn battled nerves closing out the Yokohama Classic and Kingsmill Championship earlier this month, she didn’t betray any Sunday in Michigan.
“She looked bored,” Korda said. “She sat down on the 16th tee and 18th tee, chilling in the shade, told me to come sit down next to her, like we were having a picnic.”
Gary Gilchrist, who began coaching Jutanugarn early this year, said he was most impressed with Jutanugarn’s demeanor.
“It was watching how composed she was,” Gilchrist said. “We talked this week about how everyone gets nervous, and I told her if she started feeling stress today, she should just smile and get on with it. A smile relaxes the body.”
Jutanugarn has struggled with her driver this year, but it wasn’t an issue. She hit 3-woods and 2-irons off the tee boxes all week at Travis Pointe. She kept the ball low in the wind Sunday, hitting stingers.
“She was hitting that three-quarter shot,” Gilchrist said. “She has a strong 3-wood and can hit shots with such a penetrating trajectory, where the ball runs 30 yards. It helps to have a shot to go to like that under pressure.”
Jutanugarn joins a growing cast of young stars. With the LPGA calendar turning to June, nobody older than 23 has won a tour title this year.
“It’s an exciting time for the LPGA,” Kim said.