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Back at Kingsmill, Ariya has put fear behind her

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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. –Ariya Jutanugarn loves rollercoaster rides.

So does her sister, Moriya.

So after practicing Sunday for the Kingsmill Championship, they bolted to nearby Busch Gardens to have some fun on rides like Apollo’s Chariot, Tempesto and Verbolten.

“It was the perfect time,” Ariya said. “No lines.”

“We run into every ride,” Moriya said. “We’re never scared.”

Ariya couldn’t say that about her golf game a little more than a year ago.

Fear once ruled over her, and it infected her entire game. There were too many bad memories built up of her struggling to keep her driver in play and missing cuts.

That’s what makes her return to Kingsmill special.

Jutanugarn, 21, is defending an LPGA title for the first time in her career. She won the Kingsmill Championship last year as part of her breakthrough run, becoming the first player to have her first three LPGA titles come in consecutive events.

After collapsing in the final round of the ANA Inspiration last year, Ariya bounced back a month later to win the Yokohama Tire Classic, Kingsmill and the Volvik Championship. (Yokohama folded as an LPGA event, leaving Kingsmill as Jutanugarn’s first title defense.)

The three titles, fittingly, all came in the month of May, which is Ariya’s nickname.

“I'm really proud of myself for that final round,” Jutanugarn said. “I never thought about the outcome, because I won the week before. I didn’t really worry who was going to win. I did a great job in the final round last year.”

Jutanugarn beat back a lot of bad memories to win five times overall last year, becoming the first Thai player to win the LPGA Rolex Player of the Year Award.

She did it by reworking her swing under Gary Gilchrist, and reworking her thinking under Vision 54's Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott.

While much has been made of the changes Jutanugarn made to her pre-shot routine, to the focus it gave her in what Vision 54 calls “The Play Box,” Nilsson says Jutanugarn’s success equally hinged on what she learned about Vision 54s “Memory Box,” that place players find themselves immediately after hitting a shot.

“Learning to actually focus in the 'Play Box’ and how to react after the shot were two unbelievably big factors for her,” Nilsson said. “When she improved just a little bit in those areas, it started freeing her up, to where her raw talent could come alive.”

Jutanugarn went to work trying to master those mental skills.

“She wasn’t actually focused enough times,” Nilsson said. “Now, she is more focused hitting shots, and much more disciplined in how she reacts to shots. She can separate the outcome from the process.”

Nilsson said Jutanugarn embraced the “Memory Box.”

“Before, when I missed a shot, I’d be really upset and start to, like, yell,” Jutanugarn said. “When I have that feeling, I remember a bad thing. Now, when I miss a shot, I just act like, 'It can happen. It’s going to happen if you play golf.’ I want to make sure when I hit a good shot, I’m going to have a good memory.”

Jutanugarn works almost as much on trying to control thoughts as she does trying to control shots.

“She did have a tendency, in general, to focus on all the thing that were wrong or bad,” Nilsson said. “She understood that wasn’t very smart, but she was open to learn to be a little different about it.”

Today, especially at Kingsmill, Jutanugarn has a lot of great memories to fuel her. And she’s looking to build on them this week.