Jutanugarn sisters heading in different directions

By Randall MellSeptember 16, 2017, 5:23 pm

The Jutanugarn sisters are moving in different directions this summer.

While Moriya’s upward climb continues at the Evian Championship in her bid to make her first LPGA title a major, Ariya missed another cut.

With a 3-under-par 68 Saturday, Moriya took sole possession of the lead. At 9 under overall, she is one shot ahead of Ayako Uehara (66) and two ahead of Katherine Kirk (69).

In-Kyung Kim (69) sits just three shots back, in position to win back-to-back majors.

Lydia Ko (68) and Sung Hyun Park (73) are also three back. Ko is looking to win her third major and end a 13-month winless spell. Park, the first-round leader, is looking to win back-to-back starts and add to the U.S. Women’s Open title she won two months ago.

Ariya, on the other hand, continues to struggle to find the form that helped her ascend to Rolex world No. 1 after winning the Manulife Classic in June. She has slipped to No. 4 and looks to drop again after missing the cut at Evian. She followed up a 77 in the first round with a 74 on Saturday.

This marks the seventh time Ariya has missed a cut or withdrawn in her last eight starts.

After tying for eighth at the ANA Inspiration in the spring, she has now missed the cut in the last four majors.


Evian Championship: Articles, video and photos

Full-field scores from the Evian Championship


Moriya, 23, who is two years older than Ariya, has been pointing to something big this year. She has been knocking at the door to her first victory for some time now.

“That's actually what I'm trying to do, just keep knocking on the door,” Moriya said. “And when it's time, it's time.”

If Moriya wins, the Jutanugarns will become the first sisters in history to win majors. Ariya won the Ricoh Women’s British Open last year.

Moriya has been a regular contender all summer. She tied for second at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, tied for third at the Cambia Portland Classic and tied for fourth at the Meijer Classic. She has eight top-10 finishes this year, including her last two starts.

No LPGA player has made more birdies this season than Moriya (363). Her velvet putting stroke is considered one of the best on tour. She’s fifth in putts per greens in regulation for the year. She’s eighth in scoring (69.75). Also, she has gotten longer under swing coach Gary Gilchrist, improving her average driving distance by 12 yards this season, to 256.8 yards per drive. That’s taken her from 144th in driving distance last year to 52nd this year.

“Mo has gotten sneaky long,” said Lynn Marriott, who teams with Pia Nilsson as the Jutanugarn sisters’ Vision 54 performance coaches.

Gilchrist says a club-throwing drill that Marriott and Nilsson taught Moriya is a large factor in her swinging more freely. Moriya uses old clubs and flings them down the practice range as she follows through while hitting shots in the drill.

“Sometimes, we could see Moriya swinging defensively, where there was no energy to the finish in her swing,” Nilsson said. “Gary was seeing it, too. We wanted her to feel what it means to be free with her swing. So, we told her to let go of the club and let it fly. There’s instant feedback. She could see how she was holding off or hold on.”

It’s a drill that Marriott and Nilsson learned from Fred Shoemaker.

Really, though, the Vision 54 coaches say there isn’t one change that has led to Moriya’s improvements.

“Moriya is a little like Annika Sorenstam in that she just keeps adding skills, keeps improving, whether it’s technical, physical or human skills, she just keeps adding to them,” said Nilsson, who coached Sorenstam. “There are a lot of things she has been building on since last year.”

Though Moriya proved herself coming out of Thailand, tying for medalist honors at LPGA Q-School in 2012 and winning LPGA Rolex Rookie of the Year honors in ’13, she has played in her younger sister’s shadow.

Still, with Ariya winning five times last year and claiming Rolex Player of the Year honors, Moriya was her biggest cheerleader.

“Ariya is proud of what Moriya is doing now,” Nilsson said. “They’ve been able to figure out how to separate who they are as family, as sisters, and who they are as players. It’s a beautiful thing.”

It’s been a challenging summer for Ariya. She has posted scores of 76 or worse in eight of her last 15 rounds.

While Ariya has acknowledged her surgically repaired right shoulder has bothered her at times this year, she didn’t appear to favor the shoulder missing the cut this week.

“Ariya is always going to have trouble with that shoulder,” Marriott said. “It’s going to kind of come and go, but the main thing is that she gets comfortable with her game right now. She’s working through things.”

Even gearing down without her driver, Ariya has been struggling to hit fairways. She hit just 14 of 26 fairways through the first two rounds of Evian.

Marriott and Nilsson acknowledge the sisters are different personalities, and that affects how they react to the game’s challenges.

“Ariya’s highs are really high and her lows are really low,” Marriott said. “Mo is so different, not too high and not too low, not as extreme, but we really feel Ariya is going to come out of this just fine.”

Ariya has been through worse swoons than this. Once a teen phenom, she endured some epic failure struggling to come back from surgery in 2013 to repair a torn labrum in her right shoulder. She missed 10 cuts in a row in the middle of the 2015 season, the year before she was the LPGA’s Player of the Year.

“We have good communication,” Nilsson said. “Every player, no matter who you are, there are times when things go really well, times when nothing happens and times when you have some kind of dip in performance. It happens with every player, but when you are a top, top player, it gets more attention.”

Ariya’s rebound from previous struggles gives her perspective.

“We look at it through the long-term lens of mastery,” Marriott said. “Some players panic, or go into fix-it mode, and start changing a lot of things. Ariya isn’t doing that. She’s dealing with it, and we’re helping her deal with it. We see adversity as an opportunity to learn skills you’ll need in the future.”

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.


Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery


A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.