WOBURN, England – The tears led her here.
The ache Ariya Jutanugarn endured losing the ANA Inspiration back in April has led her to this Sunday finish at the Ricoh Women’s British Open.
This is where she took all the hard lessons learned in her collapse at Mission Hills and aimed them.
With a bogey-free 6-under-par 66 Saturday, Jutanugarn gives herself another chance to close out a lead in a major championship. At 16-under 200, she gives herself a chance to win her first major. She’s two shots ahead of Mirim Lee (69) and five ahead of Mo Martin (69).
“This is definitely her major to win if she can keep doing the things she did today,” said Gary Gilchrist, her swing coach. “This is a woman with enormous talent and ability. She’s swinging so positively, aggressively through the ball. It’s awesome to watch.”
Jutanugarn, 20, put on a power show even without a driver in her bag. She hit a 9-iron from 172 yards at the third hole to make birdie. She ripped a couple 2-irons past playing partner Catriona Matthew’s driver, but Jutanugarn also showed she’s about more than raw strength. This woman has a delicate touch around the greens. She missed three greens Saturday and got up and down every time. She chipped in from 100 feet at the eighth hole for birdie. She holed a 30-footer for birdie at the 10th hole, saved par burying a 10-foot putt at the 13th, and dropped another 25-footer for birdie at the 14th.
“I didn’t hit my irons that good, but I made six birdies today,” Jutanugarn said. “I made a few long putts today.”
Jutanugarn is among the leaders in every statistical category this week.
She’s 15th in driving distance without hitting a single driver. She’s seventh in fairways hit. She’s eighth in greens in regulation and sixth in putting.
Those all-around stats aren’t just a testament to Jutanugarn’s gifts. They’re a testament to her resolve.
Jutanugarn’s story is an impressive tale of reconstruction.
Exactly one year ago, she left the Women’s British Open at Trump Turnberry feeling miserable, frustrated having missed the cut.
It was her 10th consecutive missed cut.
A former teenage Thai phenom, she was lost.
Her confidence was gone.
She could barely keep her driver in play, and that was making her play with a fear she never felt before.
“I started playing scared,” Jutanugarn told GolfChannel.com last month. “I was scared I was going to miss cuts and focused on that.”
Jutanugarn went to work making herself competitive again, so much so that she got herself in contention at this year’s first major. She started Sunday at the ANA Inspiration one shot off the lead and built herself a two-shot lead with three holes to go. She looked unbeatable until her mind began racing down the stretch. She said she wasn’t nervous all day until those final holes. She stumbled home with three straight bogeys, snap-hooking her final tee shot into a lake to lose to Lydia Ko.
The loss was a large setback.
And so from there, another reconstruction began.
In tears in the Mission Hills clubhouse, she told her sister, Mo, she was going to do everything she could to learn to close out a victory under pressure. With the help of Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, she came up with a new routine. Nilsson and Marriott showed her that while some players get too slow under pressure, she was getting too quick. They gave her a pre-shot smile as a trigger to calm her, slow her down and keep her in the moment.
Other players have seen it work wonders.
“I think maybe she had been getting down on herself, but you can see the change in her demeanor,” Martin said. “She’s more positive, and there’s something so calm about her.”
Lexi Thompson sees the same thing.
“We’ve seen a different mentality from her on the golf course,” Thompson said. “You can really see it in her pre-shot routine. She has that smile. She really seems to get in a good place before she even walks into the shot.”
Gilchrist says Jutanugarn didn’t need major fixes to her swing when she came to him early in the spring, about the same time she went to work with Nilsson and Marriott on her mental game.
“It was more a mental hurdle for her than physical,” Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist says Jutanugarn is finding confidence in a good plan.
“Honestly, I think all she needed is for somebody to tell her everything’s going to be OK,” Gilchrist said. “For me, the key for a player is trust in what they’re doing.”
Jutanugarn’s trusting the plan, and that seems to be allowing all her gifts to come out.