A. Jutanugarn turns fear of failure into winning focus

By Randall MellJune 7, 2016, 12:45 pm

SAMMAMISH, Wash. – Ariya Jutanugarn looks as strong as they come in the women’s game.

With her powerful turn and lash, she looks as if she could knock her tee shots over Mount Rainier at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship this week.

The naked eye, though, won’t allow you to see the real strength she exhibited rebuilding her game.

You can’t see all the might it took putting her confidence back together after a couple of epic failures and an unexpected injury.

May, that’s what family and friends call the 20-year-old from Thailand, isn’t riding the hottest winning streak in golf to Sahalee Country Club this week because she can hit 3-woods farther than most women hit drivers. She’s looking to win her fourth consecutive LPGA start because she learned to overcome the fear of failure that threatened to consume her. There is a different kind of strength required to win that kind of fight.

“I worried about her for a while,” said Moriya, May’s older sister by 16 months. “But she’s so much stronger because of everything that’s happened.”

May’s victories at the LPGA’s Yokohama Tire Classic, the Kingsmill Championship and the Volvik Championship in consecutive starts last month are especially impressive because of what she overcame to win them.

While this story is about how this broken player put herself back together, it starts with how she got broken.

There was, of course, that meltdown at the ANA Inspiration in April.

KPMG Women’s PGA Championship: Articles, photos and videos

That’s where May took a two-shot lead to the 16th tee Sunday at Mission Hills before closing with three consecutive bogeys. She ultimately lost, snap-hooking her final tee shot into the water and then watched Lydia Ko hoist the trophy.

May put on a brave face after, and she said all the right things to the media.

But later, up in the clubhouse, she shook with raking sobs.

“She was bawling,” said Les Luark, her caddie. “She was pretty devastated. We had a heart-to-heart talk for about 20 minutes. It was definitely hard on her, but she learned from it.”

It wasn’t the first time May endured a collapse on a giant stage. Playing the Honda Thailand on a sponsor’s exemption as a 17-year-old, she took a two-shot lead to the final hole. All of her Thai homeland seemed to be huddled around the 18th green, waiting to celebrate one of their own breaking through to become the first Thai to win an LPGA event.

But May closed with a triple bogey to lose to Inbee Park by a shot.

A legion of Thais groaned and winced before marching out of Siam Country Club in a funeral-like procession.

“Everybody walked home crying,” said Moriya, who goes by Mo.

Between those two collapses, there were setbacks even more scarring to May.

There was an injury in the summer of 2013, when she was soaring her highest as a phenom, rising to No. 15 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings after winning as a rookie pro on the Ladies European Tour and then turning heads with a series of runs on LPGA leaderboards playing as a sponsor invite and Monday qualifier. But that’s also the summer she tumbled off a tee box in a practice round at the LPGA Championship while chasing her sister with a water bottle. May tore the labrum in her right shoulder, and the injury knocked her out of the game for eight months while she recovered from surgery.

When May finally came back in 2014, she wasn’t the same player. She couldn’t make the same shallow move into the ball without pain. So, she altered her swing, moving slightly steeper into her downswing. She began struggling to hit her driver, once the strength of her game. She grew frustrated with the wild shots she hit with it and that impacted the rest of her game.

“I felt OK after the surgery, and I thought I would be OK after a few months, but I wasn’t getting better,” May said. “I couldn’t hit the ball the same way, and then I really started worrying.”

May managed to win her LPGA tour card at Q-School at the end of ’14, and she even got herself in a playoff at the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic early in ’15, but she struggled to find the consistency she once enjoyed. She struggled playing around so many doubts, so many worries that her game really wasn’t going to come back.

Even when the pain finally left her, the doubts didn’t.

“I started playing scared last year,” May said. “I was scared I was going to miss cuts, and I got too focused on that. I kept thinking about all the bad things that could happen, and things just got worse.”

In the middle of last season, May missed 10 consecutive cuts.

“Going through that was worse than what happened at ANA,” May said.

But what happened at ANA proved a pivotal turning point.

With May’s game rebuilt well enough to contend in a major, she saw the last obstacle to overcome. She saw fear still in her game.

After wiping away all the tears at Mission Hills, May left the desert fed up. She left with a resolve she hadn’t felt since her game went sideways after the injury. She confided to Mo that she left ANA telling herself something.

“She told herself that this wouldn’t happen to her one more time,” Mo said. “She said it had already happened to her too many times, and she didn’t want to go through it again. She said she was going to do everything she could to learn how to deal with pressure over the last couple of holes of a tournament.”

Enter Vision 54s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott.

They are performance coaches whose work goes beyond the swing. Their most famous pupil was Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam.

May first met with Nilsson and Marriott in Phoenix a couple weeks before the ANA Inspiration, but what May saw happening at Mission Hills drove home all the points Nilsson and Marriott were trying to make to her. May took to their lessons after with a renewed vigor.

“Pia and Lynn have done worlds of good for May,” Luark said. “They’ve absolutely turned her around mentally.”

Nilsson and Marriott gave May a detailed review of what they saw in the final round at ANA, what clues May was giving off as to how tension and pressure were changing her approach down the stretch.

“All players change in some way under pressure,” Nilsson said. “Some get too tight, some get too fast. Some over read putts, and they get too slow. Everyone reacts to stress.”

Nilsson and Marriott pointed out changes May didn’t realize she was making as pressure mounted.

“May was speeding up,” Marriott said. “She looked tighter, around her mouth and shoulders. Her smiles were becoming forced. She wasn’t taking as deep breaths.”

Nilsson and Marriott teach a routine that includes a “Think Box,” where a shot is planned behind the ball, and a “Play Box,” where the shot is executed with the commitment that was made in the “Think Box.” But they also teach players to be aware of the “Memory Box,” what happens after the ball is struck.

May learned a lot about how the “Memory Box” can affect future shots.

“May is very nice to other players, but she can be very critical of herself after a shot,” Nilsson said.

Luark, closer to May and the action than anyone, confirmed changes he was seeing in May as pressure mounted, problems with how she reacted to shots. He is an important intermediary in the work they’re all doing.

“They tell me things I can do to help her get in a comfort zone,” Luark said.

Luark’s role goes beyond caddie. He has become a sympathetic ear and comforting shoulder when May needs it, but he’s also become a stern, motivating voice when she needs that. May welcomes this. Luark worked with Mo a couple years ago, and May wanted Luark’s big brother approach when she began struggling last year. He picked up her bag in the middle of last year’s run of 10 missed cuts.

Focus is an issue with May. She’s fun loving, but easily distracted, and that part of her personality is helpful to her game, Nilsson said. But focus while in the “Play Box” is something May’s working on with her Vision 54 guides. Forgiveness and acceptance in the “Memory Box” after a shot is struck is also something May’s working on. All of these are new “skills” May is learning.

“When I first started working with May, she had all the talent in the world, all the tools in the world to do what she’s doing now, but she didn’t really understand how to play the game,” Luark said.

Nilsson and Marriott and new swing coach Gary Gilchrist are helping round out May’s education.

“The confidence grows when you go, ‘Wow, I have a plan and it’s working. I can trust this,’” Gilchrist said.

When May won at Yokohama, she still had some issues closing. When she won at Kingsmill, there were fewer. When she won at Volvik, pulling away on the back nine in a five-shot runaway, May’s peers saw what this emerging star can really do when she’s comfortable under pressure.

“I felt a little excited starting the round, but after the first nine holes, I didn’t feel anything,” May said. “I just felt like I was playing golf, playing my own game. I felt nothing.”

May is learning there is enormous power in that feeling.

Getty Images

Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, GolfChannel.com writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.

Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.

Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.

What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

@kharms27 on Instagram

Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

Getty Images

McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”

Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship

McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.  

@radiosarks on Twitter

Height of irony: Phil putts in front of 'rules' sign

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 1:36 pm

A picture is worth 1,000 words and potentially two strokes for playing a moving ball under Rule 14-5 but not Rule 1-2.

Phil Mickelson has been having some fun during his Open prep at Carnoustie hitting flop shots over human beings, but the irony of this photo below is too obvious to go over anyone's head.

Mickelson also tried tapping down fescue two weeks ago at The Greenbrier, incurring another two-shot penalty.

And so we're left to wonder about what Phil asked himself back at Shinnecock Hills: "The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’”