Great expectations for Jutanugarn

By Randall MellJanuary 25, 2017, 7:53 pm

Ariya Jutanugarn’s strength isn’t measured in the mammoth distances she can pound a golf ball.

It’s measured in how far she has come since falling flat on her face.

It’s in the might it took overcoming the kind of failure that made insiders doubt she was ever going to realize the promise she showed as a teen wunderkind.

You only have to turn the clock back a year to see the majestic arc of her climb.

Jutanugarn missed the cut at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic in last year’s LPGA’s season opener. She left Paradise Island with her head swimming in uncertainty because she was coming to know the sting of missed cuts too well. She missed 10 in a row the season before.

Jutanugarn left the Bahamas last year No. 63 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

But she wouldn’t miss another cut the rest of the year.

She would rebound to win five times, including her first major championship.

She would win the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year Award and climb all the way to No. 2 in the world rankings.

Jutanugarn takes a deep breath and sighs when asked to compare how she feels going to the Bahamas for this week’s season opener compared to last year’s.

“I feel a lot more confident,” Jutanugarn told “I’m not thinking about negative things, like last year. I was uncomfortable at this time last year, but I’m more relaxed now.”

Jutanugarn’s comeback stands as inspiration to every struggling player going through hard times.

“Ariya shows us all you can go through tough times in life, but you can come back,” said Gary Gilchrist, her swing coach. “She bounced back with her determination, with her self-belief.”

Jutanugarn credits the new team she put together early last year for helping her come back. She is relying on its members again to help her with a new set of challenges. She brought on Vision 54’s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott as her mental coaches a few weeks after leaving the Bahamas last year and hired Gilchrist as her swing coach about the same time.

That team helped Jutanugarn rebuild her game after a shoulder injury and surgery in 2013 led to a massive slump and loss of confidence.

Nilsson and Marriott gave Jutanugarn a game-changing pre-shot routine to quiet her nerves, steady her rhythm and keep her from rushing under pressure. A practiced pre-shot smile worked wonders as a “trigger” reminding Jutanugarn how to focus.

As the highest ranked player in the field at the Bahamas this week, Jutanugarn is the favorite to win. And therein lies the new challenge this year.

Jutanugarn will tee it up Thursday with giant expectations in tow.

“I know what I have to do now, even when I’m not playing well,” Jutanugarn said of the tools her team has given her. “I’m learning from rounds even when I’m playing bad.”

There are Vision 54 tools in that answer.

“It’s a totally new situation for her this year,” Nilsson said. “But she wants to keep learning and growing.”

The key words there in the Vision 54 toolbox are “learning” and “growing.” They’re concepts in a perspective they’re passing along to Jutanugarn, to help her temper expectations.

Nilsson and Marriott are helping Jutanugarn use a “growth mindset” philosophy to deal with expectations. It’s an approach popularized by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. It’s based on the idea that talent’s just the starting point to achievement, that love of learning leads to success.

While they aren’t specifically talking about Dweck and her concept, the ideas are in Vision 54’s approach.

“We don’t talk about the specific philosophy or the academic part of this to May,” Marriott said. “But we are trying to help her understand that [the challenges this year] are just about more learning and growing.”

There’s an attitude in the “growth mindset” philosophy that helps achievers play offense, instead of defense, which is a danger when players are trying to protect world-ranking turf or trying to duplicate success.

“When you’re trying to hold on to something, that makes you defensive,” Marriott said. “When you stay in a learning and `growth mindset,’ you’re on the offensive.”

Ariya and her sister, Moriya, spent almost a month in their native Thailand during the holidays. They vacationed on the beach at Krabi. They went boating, snorkeling and rock climbing.

“I only played golf three times in a month,” Ariya said.

Of course, there were a lot of media requests, and sponsor functions. Ariya’s success has led to more demands along with greater expectations.

After leaving Thailand, and before heading back to their new home in Lake Nona in Orlando, the sisters stopped to see Nilsson and Marriott in Scottsdale, Ariz., for a four-day camp to get ready for the new season.

Before heading to the Bahamas, the Jutanugarns met several times with Gilchrist at his base in Howey-In-The-Hills, just north of Orlando.

“We’re all working together, as a team,” said Moriya, the LPGA’s Rookie of the Year in 2013. “Pia, Lynn and Gary, they’re all talking and working together, and I think that’s really important. I think we all did pretty good together last year, and we’re trying to keep that up, and we’re trying to make things as simple as we can.”

Nilsson says Ariya has been open about the feelings she is having coming into the new year.

“Ariya says she’s feeling nervous about the expectations, but that’s the good thing,” Nilsson said. “She’s honest about it. That allows you to figure out what to do about it. She knows what she needs to focus on.”

Mostly, Ariya knows the strength she has to make the uphill climbs the game demands.

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.