Jutanugarn irons out her game

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Ariya Jutanugarn is putting more than a happy face into her pre-shot routine this year.

She is putting a big dose of “happy” in her overall game.

It’s become a part of her mantra.

“The only key I want is to be really happy on the course,” Jutanugarn said Wednesday at the Manulife LPGA Classic, where she’s trying to complete a Canadian sweep after winning the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open last week.

Jutanugarn used the word “happy” nine times Wednesday in her 7-minute news conference.

Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott say there is a purpose to that focus as Jutanugarn’s success grows and expectations mount.

“Ariya says everyone’s asking her now about winning and about getting to No. 1 in the world rankings,” Nilsson said. “There was a lot of pressure from back home in Thailand, after her withdrawal from the Olympics, with the injury. And there’s pressure from all the social media that these young players like to read. Ariya says she knows when she focuses on these things, on the outcome, she doesn’t play as well. She told us, `I want to tell the media that I just want to be happy on the golf course. That’s all.’ So we told her, `Well, then, just tell them that.’”

Marriott said working with former world No. 1s Yani Tseng and Ai Miyazato, they saw how expectations can smother a player as success grows.

“That’s how this whole happy thing has come up with Ariya,” Marriott said. “She has to be clear about what she can control, what she should focus on and then really put action to it.”

Like Jutanugarn did, adding a smile as a trigger in her pre-shot routine to get her calm and focused before moving into every shot.

Of course, with five victories in Jutanugarn’s last 10 starts, what’s not to be happy about?

“If I can be happy on the course, I think the outcome is going to be great,” Jutanugarn said.

After that late collapse at the ANA Inspiration, Jutanugarn overhauled her pre-shot routine. Nilsson and Marriott helped her add a smile to get her to slow down and relax before stepping into shots. Now, the smile has become a key to Jutanugarn’s overall game.

Nilsson and Marriott said they gave Jutanugarn a choice of triggers to get her comfortable before walking into a shot, and she chose the smile over a waggle and other possibilities. It seemed natural, they said, given her carefree spirit.

“It’s the Thai personality, wanting to have fun,” said Gary Gilchrist, her swing coach. “It’s not like everything’s life and death. It’s `Let’s go play, have some fun.’”

Jutanugarn’s pre-shot smile actually came before her first win.

“Of course, when you’re playing well, you’re happier,” Gilchrist said. “But she had to change her outlook first.”

A year ago, Jutanugarn was in that awful slump, where she missed 10 consecutive cuts. She was uncharacteristically miserable. A big part of it was her inability to hit her driver. She had lost control of it, struggling to keep her ball in play, and it was destroying her confidence. She said she began playing scared, and the fear infected her entire game.

Nilsson and Marriott helped Jutanugarn develop that new pre-shot routine specifically as a way to manage pressure. Jutanugarn says it’s a real key to calming her in the moment. And Gilchrist went to work helping her with her swing. Another key in Jutanugarn’s turnaround was Les Luark introducing Jutanugarn to a 2-iron. Her former caddie asked her to give it a try late last summer, as they moved away from hitting drivers.

“The thing about the 2-iron, Ariya learned she could hit it as hard as she wanted and it would go straight,” Gilchrist said.

A lot of the fear in Jutanugarn’s game was suddenly gone. She is 13th on tour in driving distance this year (267 yards per drive) even though she is hitting mostly 2-irons and 3-woods off tees.

“The driver was the cause of a lot of her problems, mentally,” Gilchrist said.

How far has Jutanugarn come this year? She hasn’t hit driver in competition since the Kingsmill Championship in May, but she says she’s putting it back in her bag at Whistle Bear Golf Club this week.

“I try to bring it out every week, but some courses I can't hit my driver,” she said. “But this course, I feel like it's wide enough to hit driver.”

Golf Channel analyst Judy Rankin wondered during Jutanugarn’s victory at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open last week just how dominant she could become with driver part of her game plan.

“If she could hit the driver as well as she hits the 2-iron and 3-wood, maybe she could be unbeatable,” Rankin said.

Jutanugarn almost put the driver back in her bag in Calgary last week, but she has become so confident and comfortable hitting 2-irons and 3-woods, she didn’t think she really needed it.

But she thinks it just might be time to give the driver a try again.

“Last week, in Calgary, there were probably three holes she could have hit driver, but it wasn’t that big an advantage,” Marriott said. “Her caddie, Peter Godfrey, says Whistle Bear this week really sets up well to be able to hit her driver more than three holes, where she won’t have long waits between hitting drivers. They were going to check it out in the pro-am today and see how it felt.

“We encouraged her that if this is a course where she is comfortable hitting driver, it would be great to get that experience. We’ve watched her hit it, and it’s just a matter of trusting it in competition. When she hits it, it’s amazing.”

It’s something more Jutanugarn can be happy about.