If there are golf demons, they’re just memories posing as something more sinister.
They’re bad memories.
They’re echoes of failure that sit on a player’s shoulder whispering destructive reminders.
That’s what made Ariya Jutanugarn’s victory Sunday at the Yokohama Tire Classic such a special triumph. She didn’t just hold off Stacy Lewis, Morgan Pressel and Amy Yang coming home on the back nine of the Senator Course in Prattville, Ala.
With all due respect to those formidable competitors, Jutanugarn beat a tougher pair of foes. She beat the memories of two epic collapses.
And Jutanugarn, 20, didn’t just beat those golf demons. She beat all the doubts that followed her after she tore the labrum in her right shoulder three years ago, an injury that robbed her of the strength and confidence many thought would take her to the top of the game.
Jutanugarn triumphed over all of that Sunday in Alabama.
“It’s great because she was really struggling with her confidence,” Gary Gilchrist, her new swing coach, told GolfChannel.com. “It’s great how she’s turned her game around.”
A little more than a month ago, Jutanugarn was two shots ahead with three holes to go at the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship. She blew the lead bogeying all three of those holes and lost to Lydia Ko. The championship ended with Jutanugarn snap hooking her final drive into the water.
“The last three holes, I really get nervous,” Jutanugarn said.
The collapse added to the weight on Jutanugarn’s shoulders, because three years before that she blew a chance to win her first LPGA title at the Honda LPGA Thailand in equally heartbreaking fashion. She took a two-shot lead to the final hole there, looking to become the first player from Thailand to win an LPGA event, but she watched her homeland wince and groan, instead. She made triple bogey and lost to Inbee Park.
Yes, Jutanugarn was only 17 when she lost to Park, but when she collapsed at the ANA, people wondered if the dots were connected.
Was this once immensely gifted player lacking something internal necessary to close out?
Jutanugarn answered on Sunday with strength of heart and mind.
After a bogey at the 17th reopened a door of doubt, she slammed it shut getting up and down for par at the end.
“Last putt, my hands shake, my legs shake,” Jutanugarn said. “I not have it this bad before, my putter shaking.”
This time Jutanugarn beat those nerves and became the first Thai to win an LPGA title. She did so on Mother’s Day, with her mother, Narumon, and her sister, Moriya, watching greenside.
“Good thing in my life, my mom and my sister always trust in me,” Ariya said.
When Jutanugarn turned pro three years ago, she looked as if she were on the fast track to stardom. She looked ready to challenge Ko and Lexi Thompson as the best young players in the game. She won a Ladies European Tour event in one of her first starts as a rookie on that tour and didn’t finish worse than a tie for fourth in five starts playing LPGA events via sponsor exemptions and Monday qualifying. Still 17, she rocketed to No. 15 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.
And then Jutanugarn hurt herself.
In a practice round at the 2013 LPGA Championship, Jutanugarn playfully chased her sister off a tee box and stumbled down a steep slope. That’s how she tore up her shoulder. She underwent corrective surgery and was out for eight months. But when Jutanugarn returned in 2014, she still wasn’t right. Her shoulder still hurt, forcing her to change her swing to a more over-the-top move. It nearly robbed her of the strength of her game – her power.
“When you go through an injury as an athlete, and you aren’t playing, your mind takes over, and your mind takes you in all different directions,” Gilchrist said.
Jutanugarn made it through LPGA Q School at the end of 2014, and she showed a few flashes of her former self last year, but she had plummeted to No. 124 in the world. She also missed 10 consecutive cuts. Ariya and Moriya sought out Gilchrist together at the start of this year, and they’ve been working together ever since. Ariya came to Gilchrist with no confidence in her driver, the best weapon in her bag when she was at her best. She was hitting it all over the place.
“I think Ariya started losing trust in what she was doing,” Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist went to work on improving both Ariya’s and Moriya’s transition, on their move into the ball and impact position. Gilchrist also said they worked on changing their focus to what was working instead of what wasn’t working.
Slowly, confidence began to return.
“At one point, Ariya told me, `I’m going to win this year,’” Gilchrist said.
That was before the ANA collapse, but Gilchrist said Jutanugarn was more emboldened than discouraged finishing solo fourth at the ANA Inspiration.
“She walked away saying `I can do this, I can win,’” Gilchrist said. “If she didn’t believe she had what it takes to win, she wouldn’t have won this one.”