Ariya Jutanugarn is making sure youth phenoms remain a major storyline to the start of the 2013 LPGA season.
Seizing the 54-hole lead Saturday, Jutanugarn added some spicy fascination to the final round of the Honda LPGA Thailand.
Jutanugarn, 17, is a homegrown Thai prodigy trying to become the third youngest winner of an LPGA event. If that isn’t enough to fan the flame of interest among locals, there’s another compelling storyline. Jutanugarn may have something to prove to the LPGA after her petition for a waiver to join the tour was denied last year by tour officials. She’s playing this week on a sponsor invite.
Jutanugarn’s run comes a week after 15-year-old amateur sensation Lydia Ko made headlines taking a share of the lead into the final round of the LPGA’s season-opening ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. Ko’s bid to win back-to-back professional events was denied when Jiyai Shin outplayed her in the final round.
Jutanugarn chased down Stacy Lewis, the reigning LPGA player of the year, in Saturday’s third round. Playing alongside Lewis in the final pairing, Jutanugarn rode a wave of Thai support at Siam Country Club in coming from three shots back to catch and pass Lewis. Jutanugarn grew up in Bangkok.
“I did feel a lot of pressure early on,” Jutanugarn told reporters after her round. “I felt the whole Thai people’s hope on my back. After a few holes, people starting to cheer me up, and that made all the pressure go away.”
With a 2-under-par 70 in windy conditions, Jutanugarn moved to 11-under 205. Lewis (76) slipped three shots back into a tie for second with Se Ri Pak (71) and Beatriz Recari (72).
Rolex world No. 1 Yani Tseng (72) is 10 shots back in her attempt to win this event for a third consecutive year. Ko (74) is nine shots back.
Jutanugarn is half of a gifted sister tandem. Her older sister, Moriya, 18, shared medalist honors at LPGA Q-School in December to earn her playing privileges. Two weeks later, Ariya won the Ladies European Tour Q-School to earn LET status.
Moriya tied for fourth in Australia last week and sits tied for 61st in Thailand this week.
Ariya is considered the more accomplished of the sister tandem. She won the U.S. Girls’ Junior two years ago and was medalist at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links three years ago. She lost to Ko in the semifinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur last summer. Ariya sought to join her sister at LPGA Q-School last fall but was denied a waiver of the LPGA’s rule requiring members be at least 18.
Ariya and Moriya have rarely been apart in their budding golf careers. The denial of an LPGA waiver forced the family to split apart for the start of Ariya’s and Moriya’s pro careers with Ariya’s and Moriya’s father accompanying Ariya to LET events and their mother accompanying Moriya to LPGA events.