A. Jutanugarn turns fear of failure into winning focus

By Randall MellJune 7, 2016, 12:45 pm

SAMMAMISH, Wash. – Ariya Jutanugarn looks as strong as they come in the women’s game.

With her powerful turn and lash, she looks as if she could knock her tee shots over Mount Rainier at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship this week.

The naked eye, though, won’t allow you to see the real strength she exhibited rebuilding her game.

You can’t see all the might it took putting her confidence back together after a couple of epic failures and an unexpected injury.

May, that’s what family and friends call the 20-year-old from Thailand, isn’t riding the hottest winning streak in golf to Sahalee Country Club this week because she can hit 3-woods farther than most women hit drivers. She’s looking to win her fourth consecutive LPGA start because she learned to overcome the fear of failure that threatened to consume her. There is a different kind of strength required to win that kind of fight.

“I worried about her for a while,” said Moriya, May’s older sister by 16 months. “But she’s so much stronger because of everything that’s happened.”

May’s victories at the LPGA’s Yokohama Tire Classic, the Kingsmill Championship and the Volvik Championship in consecutive starts last month are especially impressive because of what she overcame to win them.

While this story is about how this broken player put herself back together, it starts with how she got broken.

There was, of course, that meltdown at the ANA Inspiration in April.

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That’s where May took a two-shot lead to the 16th tee Sunday at Mission Hills before closing with three consecutive bogeys. She ultimately lost, snap-hooking her final tee shot into the water and then watched Lydia Ko hoist the trophy.

May put on a brave face after, and she said all the right things to the media.

But later, up in the clubhouse, she shook with raking sobs.

“She was bawling,” said Les Luark, her caddie. “She was pretty devastated. We had a heart-to-heart talk for about 20 minutes. It was definitely hard on her, but she learned from it.”

It wasn’t the first time May endured a collapse on a giant stage. Playing the Honda Thailand on a sponsor’s exemption as a 17-year-old, she took a two-shot lead to the final hole. All of her Thai homeland seemed to be huddled around the 18th green, waiting to celebrate one of their own breaking through to become the first Thai to win an LPGA event.

But May closed with a triple bogey to lose to Inbee Park by a shot.

A legion of Thais groaned and winced before marching out of Siam Country Club in a funeral-like procession.

“Everybody walked home crying,” said Moriya, who goes by Mo.

Between those two collapses, there were setbacks even more scarring to May.

There was an injury in the summer of 2013, when she was soaring her highest as a phenom, rising to No. 15 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings after winning as a rookie pro on the Ladies European Tour and then turning heads with a series of runs on LPGA leaderboards playing as a sponsor invite and Monday qualifier. But that’s also the summer she tumbled off a tee box in a practice round at the LPGA Championship while chasing her sister with a water bottle. May tore the labrum in her right shoulder, and the injury knocked her out of the game for eight months while she recovered from surgery.

When May finally came back in 2014, she wasn’t the same player. She couldn’t make the same shallow move into the ball without pain. So, she altered her swing, moving slightly steeper into her downswing. She began struggling to hit her driver, once the strength of her game. She grew frustrated with the wild shots she hit with it and that impacted the rest of her game.

“I felt OK after the surgery, and I thought I would be OK after a few months, but I wasn’t getting better,” May said. “I couldn’t hit the ball the same way, and then I really started worrying.”

May managed to win her LPGA tour card at Q-School at the end of ’14, and she even got herself in a playoff at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic early in ’15, but she struggled to find the consistency she once enjoyed. She struggled playing around so many doubts, so many worries that her game really wasn’t going to come back.

Even when the pain finally left her, the doubts didn’t.

“I started playing scared last year,” May said. “I was scared I was going to miss cuts, and I got too focused on that. I kept thinking about all the bad things that could happen, and things just got worse.”

In the middle of last season, May missed 10 consecutive cuts.

“Going through that was worse than what happened at ANA,” May said.

But what happened at ANA proved a pivotal turning point.

With May’s game rebuilt well enough to contend in a major, she saw the last obstacle to overcome. She saw fear still in her game.

After wiping away all the tears at Mission Hills, May left the desert fed up. She left with a resolve she hadn’t felt since her game went sideways after the injury. She confided to Mo that she left ANA telling herself something.

“She told herself that this wouldn’t happen to her one more time,” Mo said. “She said it had already happened to her too many times, and she didn’t want to go through it again. She said she was going to do everything she could to learn how to deal with pressure over the last couple of holes of a tournament.”

Enter Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott.

They are performance coaches whose work goes beyond the swing. Their most famous pupil was Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam.

May first met with Nilsson and Marriott in Phoenix a couple weeks before the ANA Inspiration, but what May saw happening at Mission Hills drove home all the points Nilsson and Marriott were trying to make to her. May took to their lessons after with a renewed vigor.

“Pia and Lynn have done worlds of good for May,” Luark said. “They’ve absolutely turned her around mentally.”

Nilsson and Marriott gave May a detailed review of what they saw in the final round at ANA, what clues May was giving off as to how tension and pressure were changing her approach down the stretch.

“All players change in some way under pressure,” Nilsson said. “Some get too tight, some get too fast. Some over read putts, and they get too slow. Everyone reacts to stress.”

Nilsson and Marriott pointed out changes May didn’t realize she was making as pressure mounted.

“May was speeding up,” Marriott said. “She looked tighter, around her mouth and shoulders. Her smiles were becoming forced. She wasn’t taking as deep breaths.”

Nilsson and Marriott teach a routine that includes a “Think Box,” where a shot is planned behind the ball, and a “Play Box,” where the shot is executed with the commitment that was made in the “Think Box.” But they also teach players to be aware of the “Memory Box,” what happens after the ball is struck.

May learned a lot about how the “Memory Box” can affect future shots.

“May is very nice to other players, but she can be very critical of herself after a shot,” Nilsson said.

Luark, closer to May and the action than anyone, confirmed changes he was seeing in May as pressure mounted, problems with how she reacted to shots. He is an important intermediary in the work they’re all doing.

“They tell me things I can do to help her get in a comfort zone,” Luark said.

Luark’s role goes beyond caddie. He has become a sympathetic ear and comforting shoulder when May needs it, but he’s also become a stern, motivating voice when she needs that. May welcomes this. Luark worked with Mo a couple years ago, and May wanted Luark’s big brother approach when she began struggling last year. He picked up her bag in the middle of last year’s run of 10 missed cuts.

Focus is an issue with May. She’s fun loving, but easily distracted, and that part of her personality is helpful to her game, Nilsson said. But focus while in the “Play Box” is something May’s working on with her Vision 54 guides. Forgiveness and acceptance in the “Memory Box” after a shot is struck is also something May’s working on. All of these are new “skills” May is learning.

“When I first started working with May, she had all the talent in the world, all the tools in the world to do what she’s doing now, but she didn’t really understand how to play the game,” Luark said.

Nilsson and Marriott and new swing coach Gary Gilchrist are helping round out May’s education.

“The confidence grows when you go, ‘Wow, I have a plan and it’s working. I can trust this,’” Gilchrist said.

When May won at Yokohama, she still had some issues closing. When she won at Kingsmill, there were fewer. When she won at Volvik, pulling away on the back nine in a five-shot runaway, May’s peers saw what this emerging star can really do when she’s comfortable under pressure.

“I felt a little excited starting the round, but after the first nine holes, I didn’t feel anything,” May said. “I just felt like I was playing golf, playing my own game. I felt nothing.”

May is learning there is enormous power in that feeling.

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McCoy earns medalist honors at Web.com Q-School

By Will GrayDecember 11, 2017, 12:30 am

One year after his budding career was derailed by a car accident, Lee McCoy got back on track by earning medalist honors at the final stage of Web.com Tour Q-School.

McCoy shot a final-round 65 at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler, Ariz., to finish the 72-hole event at 28 under. That total left him two shots ahead of Sung-Jae Im and guaranteed him fully-exempt status on the developmental circuit in 2018.

It's an impressive turnaround for the former University of Georgia standout who finished fourth at the 2016 Valspar Championship as an amateur while playing alongside Jordan Spieth in the final round. But he broke his wrist in a car accident the day before second stage of Q-School last year, leaving him without status on any major tour to begin the year.

McCoy was not the only player who left Arizona smiling. Everyone in the top 10 and ties will be exempt through the first 12 events of the new Web.com Tour season, a group that includes former amateur standouts Curtis Luck (T-3), Sam Burns (T-10) and Maverick McNealy (T-10).

Players who finished outside the top 10 but inside the top 45 and ties earned exemptions into the first eight events of 2018. That group includes Cameron Champ (T-16), who led the field in driving at this year's U.S. Open as an amateur, and Wyndham Clark (T-23).

Everyone who advanced to the final stage of Q-School will have at least conditional Web.com Tour status in 2018. Among those who failed to secure guaranteed starts this week were Robby Shelton, Rico Hoey, Jordan Niebrugge, Joaquin Niemann and Kevin Hall.

Els honored with Heisman Humanitarian Award

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 11:41 pm

The annual Heisman Trophy award ceremony is one of the biggest moments in any football season, but there was a touching non-football moment as well on Saturday night as Ernie Els received the Heisman Humanitarian Award.

The award, which had been announced in August, recognized Els' ongoing efforts on behalf of his Els for Autism foundation. Els received the award at Manhattan's PlayStation Theater, where Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.

Els, 47, founded Els for Autism in 2009 with his wife after their son, Ben, was diagnosed with autism. Their efforts have since flourished into a 26-acre campus in Jupiter, Fla., and the creation of the Els Center for Excellence in 2015.

The Heisman Humanitarian Award has been given out since 2006. Past recipients include NBA center David Robinson, NFL running back Warrick Dunn, soccer star Mia Hamm and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.

A native of South Africa, Els won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1997 and The Open in 2002 and 2012. He has won 19 times on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.

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Monday finish for Joburg Open; Sharma leads by 4

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 10, 2017, 8:57 pm

Rain, lightning and hail pushed the Joburg Open to a Monday finish, with India’s Shubhankar Sharma holding a four-stroke lead with 11 holes to play in Johannesburg.

Play is scheduled to resume at 7:30 a.m. local time.

South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen will have a 3-foot putt for birdie to move within three shots of Sharma wen play resumes at the Randpark Golf Club. Sarma is at 22 under par.

Tapio Pulkkanen of Finland and James Morrison of England are tied for third at 14 under. Pulkkanen has 10 holes remaining, Morrison 11.

The top three finishers who are not already exempt, will get spots in next year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.



Stricker, O'Hair team to win QBE Shootout

By Will GrayDecember 10, 2017, 8:55 pm

It may not count in the official tally, but Steve Stricker is once again in the winner's circle on the PGA Tour.

Stricker teamed with Sean O'Hair to win the two-person QBE Shootout, as the duo combined for a better-ball 64 in the final round to finish two shots clear of Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry. It's the second win in this event for both men; Stricker won with Jerry Kelly back in 2009 while O'Hair lifted the trophy with Kenny Perry in 2012.

Stricker and O'Hair led wire-to-wire in the 54-hole, unofficial event after posting a 15-under 57 during the opening-round scramble.

"We just really gelled well together," Stricker said. "With his length the first day, getting some clubs into the greens, some short irons for me, we just fed off that first day quite a bit. We felt comfortable with one another."

Full-field scores from the QBE Shootout

Stricker won 12 times during his PGA Tour career, most recently at the 2012 Tournament of Champions. More recently the 50-year-old has been splitting his time on the PGA Tour Champions and captained the U.S. to a victory at the Presidents Cup in October. O'Hair has four official Tour wins, most recently at the 2011 RBC Canadian Open.

Pat Perez and Brian Harman finished alone in third, four shots behind Stricker and O'Hair. Lexi Thompson and Tony Finau, the lone co-ed pairing in the 12-team event, finished among a tie for fourth.