WOBURN, England – Talk about a winning smile.
Ariya Jutanugarn’s smile embodies the terrific story of how this broken player put herself back together again.
Though she looked like she was going to run away early with the Ricoh Women’s British Open Sunday, it was fitting she had to overcome another dose of adversity on another nerve-wracking back nine, that she had to overcome a final test of her resolve.
It was fitting she smiled through every daunting challenge this crazy day presented.
Jutanugarn started smiling as part of a new pre-shot routine after she collapsed in April at the ANA Inspiration, the season opening major. The smile was a “trigger” Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott gave Jutanugarn to remind her to slow down, calm down and focus when the pressure mounted in big events.
So when all hell started breaking loose on the back nine Sunday, Jutanugarn kept smiling.
“When I get really excited or nervous, I know what I have to do,” Jutanugarn said.
Jutanugarn shot an even-par 72 to become the first man or woman from Thailand to win a major championship. She finished at 16-under 272, three shots better than Mirim Lee (73) and Mo Martin (70).
“I really wanted to win a major, and I did, so I'm very proud of myself,” Jutanugarn said.
Jutanugarn beat more than the 143 other players in the field this week at Woburn Golf Club. She beat all the demon memories lined up against her.
A year ago, Jutanugarn left the Women’s British Open miserable, frustrated missing the cut. It was her 10th consecutive missed cut. Once a teenage phenom who seemed destined for stardom, she was lost. And when she finally thought she had fought her way back this spring, she blew a two-shot lead over the final three holes at the ANA Inspiration, creating more doubts.
“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.”
With Nilsson, Marriott and Gilchrist helping, Jutanugarn rebuilt her swing and her confidence. She needed all her gifts Sunday after building a six-shot lead on the front nine and then nearly losing it on the back nine.
With a double bogey at the 13th hole, Jutanugarn watched Mirim Lee move within a shot of her, but Jutanugarn didn’t crack with the pressure mounting.
“I was still nervous, but I’m pretty sure I learned a lot from [ANA],” Jutanugarn said. “Because after I felt nervous, I knew what to do.”
Jutanugarn’s smile reminded her to avoid the pitfalls that cost her at the ANA, to slow down and stay in the moment.
“She was so different than at the ANA,” Nilsson said. “She had the tools to manage herself.”
Jutanugarn rebounded from her double bogey with one solid shot after another and with a clutch 25-foot birdie putt at the 17th to put her back up by two shots with one hole to play.
“Today, she knew she would be more nervous,” Marriott said. “She took more breaths with long exhales and slowed down a little bit.”
Moriya Jutanugarn, Ariya’s older sister and fellow tour pro, saw how down Ariya was after missing her 10th consecutive cut a year ago at the Women’s British Open.
“Her mind wasn’t going right,” Moriya said. “She was everywhere. She had too many worries. She was really stressed, but this year’s completely different. She said this year she was just going to play her game and show everyone her style of golf.”
Jutanugarn’s practiced pre-shot smile embodied the winning plan Ariya put together with her team’s help.
Peter Godfrey, Jutanugarn’s caddie, saw how it worked after the double bogey.
“She never changed her attitude all through the day, whether she made birdie or double bogey,” Godfrey said.
The victory is Jutanugarn’s fourth this season.
Early last year, she was No. 124 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She’s projected to move three spots to No. 3 with this win, behind No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 2 Brooke Henderson. The top three players in the world are now 19, 18 and 20 years old, respectively.
Ariya’s mother, Narumon, was beaming for all of Thailand afterward.
“I’m proud for Thailand,” she said with Moriya translating. “I hope this inspires more young girls in Thailand to take up golf.”
Gilchrist believes Jutanugarn is only beginning to show what she’s capable of achieving.
“Ariya’s confidence is going to go to another level with this victory,” Gilchrist said. “This girl was cruising in fourth gear today. She’s got a fifth gear and a sixth gear.”
Jutanugarn also has a winning smile that won’t quit.