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Ariya Jutanugarn last at LPGA opener, but she remains hopeful

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ORLANDO, Fla. – The last player off the back nine Saturday morning at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club, Ariya Jutanugarn had a clear range at her back as she hit balls. Tom Petty’s hit “Free Fallin” blared from a nearby speaker, somewhat apropos considering the former world No. 1 has slid to No. 77 in the Rolex Rankings and was to begin the day at 17 over, 12 shots behind her closest competitor.

When she had finished her full-swing warmup, less than 10 minutes before her tee time, Jutanugarn headed to the short-game area, dropped four balls at her feet and chipped them all to the nearest flag. She then pulled out her phone, didn’t break stride as she crossed the putting green and continued down the cart path toward the 10th tee.

“I ran out of time,” Jutanugarn said later, adding that at least she was able to stroke a few putts prior to her range work. “I woke up late today.”

Full-field scores from the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions

The 27-year-old Jutanugarn is just getting back into the swing of things following an extended break. She put the clubs away upon the conclusion of the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship and didn’t retrieve them until a few days before this week’s Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions, the annual LPGA lid-lifter.

No rounds of golf. No practice, either.

“I just wanted to be away from golf,” said Jutanugarn, who notched just two top-10s in 27 starts last season.

It was the longest layoff for Jutanugarn aside from when she had shoulder surgery in 2013. She spent much of her time at home in Thailand with her family and friends, including sister, Moriya, who also enjoyed a true offseason as she, too, dove in the world rankings; she sits just a spot better than Ariya, at No. 76, after a 2022 campaign that was, in Moriya's words, “boring and kind of poor.”

“Coming back, I’m still hitting it fat and missing left and right,” Moriya said. “Trying to tighten it up every day.”

Yet, in Moriya’s case, she still managed to find herself in a share of sixth place through 54 holes on a tight Lake Nona layout. Her rust, it seems, is being easily shaken off.

Ariya, however, began her third round by fanning a 3-wood and ending up with her ball resting in the pine straw against a tree root. Arms crossed, she walked to her ball and then wasted no time in punching out, eventually making bogey before grinding her way to an impressive even-par 72.

She was now only nine behind the rest of the field.

There have been moments in the past few years in which Ariya has been open about her struggles with focusing too much on the result, which only compounded with each poor finish. Even when she won two years ago at the LPGA Thailand, she needed some pre-round encouragement from mental coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson to not think about the outcome. Her victory was but a temporary reprieve.

Though she had been talked out of it before, Ariya knew deep down she needed a hard reset. Last year’s troubles reinforced that, so after CME, she put golf on the back-burner for a couple months.

“When you start to love this game, I feel like you can put everything and do everything for that,” Ariya said late last year. “I think that's a key to be successful. You have to be happy first, and then, as soon as you're happy, you can do whatever.”

After signing her scorecard Saturday afternoon, Ariya was mostly upbeat, knowing that, as hard as it is to see her name at the bottom of the leaderboard, the swing changes she’s implementing with new coach Sean Foley aren’t going to take hold overnight. And if her attitude is bad, they'll never stick.

Both Jutanugarns began working with Foley, who notably split with pupil Lydia Ko late last year, during the KPMG Women’s PGA in June. While Moriya can be a tinkerer, Ariya says, Ariya has always been hesitant to change much with her swing.

But when Foley came on board, Ariya had already been dealing with a left-hip injury, and the pain and her play – she had just missed the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open – were enough to convince her to adjust her action and take some pressure off her left side.

“It’s different for everyone,” Ariya said. “But for me, I’ve never had a big change before, so it’s been really hard. I’m really stubborn; I don’t like to change anything, but I’ve been doing the same stuff and it wasn’t working anymore, so I knew I needed to do something different.

“Everything takes time, but I’m going in the right direction.”

Ariya appreciates Foley’s honesty. “He’s really positive,” she says. “But he can kick your a--. He doesn’t bulls---.” And after this week, she’ll likely get a true assessment that could be difficult to hear.

She also provided some feedback of her own: The outcome Sunday would show Ariya that she needed to have played and practiced more this past offseason, but mentally – and perhaps also physically, giving her ailing hip some rest – the break was well worth it.

“Actually," she said, "I feel good and bad at the same time.”

And that bit of good is all she needs to potentially turn things around.