ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – What a head-spinning two months for Ariya Jutanugarn.
From that false alarm where the Women’s World Golf Ranking projection misfired predicting she would ascend to No. 1, to her winning the Manulife Classic to actually go to No. 1, to the return of pain in her surgically repaired right shoulder, to missing cuts in back-to-back majors at the KPMG Women’s PGA and the U.S. Women’s Open and then slipping down to No. 3 in the world ...
It must feel like two months going on two years, with so many twists and turns already packed into her summer.
Jutanugarn arrives to defend her title at the Ricoh Women’s British Open this week looking to find the mojo that led to her winning the Rolex Player of the Year Award last season. She arrives with yet another challenge fighting a cold and cough after playing in the wind and rain at the Ladies Scottish last week.
“A lot of things have happened,” Jutanugarn said.
Jutanugarn went from soaring to the thrill of being the first player from Thailand to become world No. 1 to spiraling with concerns over her shoulder and swing.
“Sometimes, we're not going to have a good week, and it happened to me the last month,” Jutanugarn said. “The last few tournaments, I've just not really had a good tournament, but I know what I have to work on. Just keep working. I'm still growing and I'm still learning every day.”
And that’s the perspective her Vision54 performance coaches like hearing as she seeks to meet all the new challenges that come once a player has reached No. 1 and is expected to return there.
Jutanugarn turned 23 last week, and this battle to win majors, reach No. 1 and become Player of the Year are still all new to her, even though she’s already achieved all three goals.
“Everything gets magnified, on outcomes and expectations, not just your own but everyone else wanting to know when you’re going to win again,” said Vision54’s Pia Nilsson. “Ariya is learning to manage all of that, and the thing is, it’s not going to go away. The better you get, the more of that you get.”
Jutanugarn says she managed the pain in her shoulder tying for 44th in the foul weather that plagued the Ladies Scottish Open last week, but ...
“I hit a few bad shots, lots of bad shots, so my shoulder started to hurt, but it's getting better,” Jutanugarn said.
Jutanugarn is also managing expectations after missing cuts at back-to-back majors.
“There’s a lot more pressure on her to perform now,” said Gary Gilchrist, her swing coach. “It’s what comes once you’ve reached No. 1.”
The whirlwind that is Jutanugarn’s golf life actually covers her entire professional career, where she has lived through it all, from can’t-miss prodigy to injured/slumping fledgling pro to triumphant rebuilt star.
“Becoming No. 1, it’s like getting married or having children,” Gilchrist said. “You’re never really ready. It’s a shock with all the responsibility that comes with it.
“These girls becoming No. 1 now, they’re so young, and there really is no formal training that prepares them for it.”
When Jutanugarn reached No. 1 with her victory at the Manulife Classic, Gilchrist sensed she wanted some time to digest what it meant, to adjust to what would come next. But she was committed to the Meijer Classic the next week, then the summer majors were upon her, with the Women’s PGA, the U.S. Women’s Open and the Women’s British Open scheduled in a six-week period.
“When you go to No. 1, it’s the ultimate thing you can do in golf,” Gilchrist said. “I think when it happened, it was like, ‘OK, can I take a little rest now?’ But the season was really just beginning. So, there’s no time to absorb it. And then the question becomes, ‘When are you going to get to No. 1 again?”’
There is also the challenge of representing Thailand. For players like Jutanugarn, it’s different from the challenge for Americans ascending to No. 1. There’s a much more intense nationalism that goes with it. It was the same for Japan’s Ai Miyazato when she went to No. 1 and for Shanshan Feng when she became the first player from China to win a major championship and then an Olympic medal in golf, and for all the South Koreans at the elite level. They’re made to feel as if they are playing as much for country as they are themselves.
“It's really a challenge,” Jutanugarn said. “It’s even harder when a lot of people expect me to play good. It's going to be harder for me to have fun and go enjoy my golf game, but I know all the Thai people are going to give me full support, no matter what, even though my world ranking right now is not No. 1 or No. 2, but they still give me full support.”
Jutanugarn would relish giving them more to be proud of at Kingsbarns Golf Links this week.