A. Jutanugarn pushing Ko for POY honors


Ariya Jutanugarn upped the ante in her bid to challenge Lydia Ko as the year’s best player in women’s golf.

With her victory Sunday at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open, Jutanugarn claimed an LPGA best fifth title this season, one more than Ko.

Jutanugarn made a statement winning the Canadian Women’s Open because Ko has asserted herself so thoroughly in the event. Ko arrived in Calgary last week trying to win the championship for the fourth time in the last five years. Jutanugarn stole the thunder from Ko and Canadian favorite Brooke Henderson, the favorites coming into the week.

While Jutanugarn’s victory didn’t enable her to overtake Ko in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings or the Player of the Year and money winning races, it set up a compelling competition for those prizes going into the home stretch of the season. It ought to be a fun final three months for fans of the women’s game.

Jutanugarn and Ko win in contrasting styles.

Jutanugarn can wow the competition with her power.

Even though she doesn’t hit driver much anymore – she hasn’t hit driver since the Kingsmill Championship in May – she still impresses with her powerful lashes. In the third round on Saturday, Jutanugarn reached the 12th green hitting 2-iron and 5-iron to give herself an eagle chance. She hit her 2-iron 296 yards in the thin air in Calgary, then hit the 5-iron 230 yards.

“It’s not a fair fight,” Golf Channel course reporter Jerry Foltz said.

Jutanugarn is 13th on tour this year in driving distance without hitting many drivers. She averages 266 yards per drive using mostly 3-woods and 2-irons. Ko is 118th in driving distance, averaging 247 yards per drive.

They are both strong iron players who hit a lot of greens.

Ko is 13th on tour hitting greens in regulation, Jutanugarn is 15th. Ko is one of the best wedge players in the game, and it’s becoming a strength of Jutanugarn’s.

Ko and Inbee Park have the best short games on tour. Ko is the best putter on tour this year, leading the LPGA in putts per GIR. Park may be the best putter the women’s game has ever seen.

Jutanugarn also owns a strong short game, with a soft touch complementing her power game, and she is becoming a clutch putter. She’s eighth on tour this year in putts per GIR.

“That’s something that’s changed about Ariya this year,” Hall of Famer Judy Rankin, a Golf Channel analyst, said during this weekend’s telecast. “She can putt when it counts.”

Ko has been proving herself a prolific winner as a full-time LPGA member for three years now. She has shown her mastery maintaining her winning ways while honing swing changes under David Leadbetter, expanding her repertoire of shots and ball flights under his tutelage.

Jutanugarn’s talent has been there for all to see since she turned pro at 17, but she is taking the tour by storm over the last four months. She has gone to another level with Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott and swing coach Gary Gilchrist helping her harness gifts with an overhauled game plan.

“As a young player, Ariya could just whack it around and still play well,” Rankin said. “She’s learned she needed to develop a disciplined, gifted game.”

Rankin sees Jutanugarn still discovering what is possible.

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

Ko has been playing with a discipline that confounds veterans since she first won an LPGA event as a 15-year-old. She can wear out opponents with her consistent level of excellence. She’s as mentally tough as they come on tour. She’s also resilient, one of the best bounce-back players in the game.

“Lydia Ko’s greatness is kind of boring, just saying,” said Gail Graham, the two-time LPGA winner who worked as an on-course reporter for Golf Channel at the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open. “She’s in the middle of the fairway most of the time, gives herself a lot of [birdie] chances, just great consistency.”

With a 30-point haul in Sunday’s victory, Jutanugarn trimmed Ko’s lead to a mere five points in the Player of the Year race. A second place finish is worth 12 points with Ko claiming four points Sunday for her tie for seventh. Only top-10 finishes earn points.

Here’s the updated POY standings:

1. Ko, 241.

2. Jutanugarn, 236.

3. Brooke Henderson, 131.

Ko’s grip on the Rolex world No. 1 ranking is so strong, Jutanugarn may need two or three more victories this year to catch her.

Still, Ko and Jutanugarn have set up a compelling battle for the game’s biggest prizes the rest of the year. If one of them wins the year’s final major, the Evian Championship, it’s another large statement. Ko vs. Jutanugarn shapes up as a classic confrontation of golfing skills, one that ought to excite fans of the women’s game if they can keep mustering their best on the way to the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.