Ariya Jutanugarn is not a typical Thai teenaged girl. To watch the eighteen-year old play a round of golf is to watch raw energy, aggression, and athleticism brought into a singular focus. The youngest child in a golfing family — Jutanugarn’s parents own Rose Garden Golf Course in Bangkok, Thailand and her older sister, Moriya plays on the LPGA Tour — Airya comes to the tee box fully prepared mentally as well as technically to seize the win.
Like Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko, Charley Hull, and Minjee Lee, the other rising teen stars on the global women’s golf stage, Jutanugarn picked up a golf club when she was very young. Jutanugarn’s public golf career began in 2007 when as an eleven-year old she qualified to play in the LPGA Honda Thailand, becoming the youngest player ever to compete in a Tour event. She finished at nine strokes over par, in fifty-first place. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious finish but it marked the start of a seven-year amateur career that took her to the top of the rankings.
A Compelling Amateur Career
By 2011 the fifteen-year old amateur dynamo had a mature and fierce game in her bag and was competing across amateur and professional venues.
That year Jutanugarn took home amateur victories from the U.S. Girls’ Junior, the AJGA Rolex Girls, and the Junior PGA Championship, where she romped over the competition to a ten-stroke victory. She also earned low amateur honors at the Kraft Nabisco Championship when she tied for 25th place, and she claimed her first top-ten pro venue finish at the Honda LPGA Thailand when she tied for eighth place.
She ended the 2011 season as top amateur in the Polo Golf Rankings and being named Rolex Junior Player of the Year, a singular honor that’s also been bestowed on some of the great golfers in the current generation: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Charles Howell III, Hunter Mahan, Scott Verplank, Cristie Kerr, Inbee Park, Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel.
By 2012 it was clear to everyone that Jutanugarn’s transition from amateur to pro golfer was inevitable. She won the U.S. Junior Amateur, U.S. Amateur Public Links, AJGA Rolex Girls Junior, Junior PGA, Canadian Women’s Amateur and Polo Golf Junior Classic. She was also playing regularly in pro events, finishing the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia in a tie for ninth place, the Honda LPGA Thailand in a tie for twelfth, and the Kraft Nabisco Championship in a tie for twenty-second.
Jutanugarn was again recognized by the AJGA as Rolex Junior Player of the Year and then in December, went on to win the Lalla Aicha Tour School Final Stage for 2013 by five shots. She ended her amateur career in December 2012, ranked 2nd on the Amateur World Rankings behind Lydia Ko. She was more than ready to step up to the tee box as a pro.
2013: The Rookie
Ariya Jutanugarn started her rookie year on the LET but faced the same dilemma Lexi Thompson had confronted when she turned pro at sixteen and was denied access to LPGA Q-School because of her age. Like Thompson, Jutanugarn’s petition asking that the age requirement be waived was denied and she gained access to LPGA-sanctioned events only through sponsor exemptions. Ariya went on to LET Q-School and a series of top-five LET and LPGA finishes that, in the final analysis, made Commissioner Mike Whan’s decision look, in the words of GolfWeek’s Beth Ann Nichols, “rather silly” (May 2, 2013).
Her rookie year began beautifully and she played inspired, fearless, aggressive golf. Opening her rookie season at the Volvik RACV Ladies Masters, she finished in a tie with Chella Choi for second place, behind Australian Karrie Webb. It was a terrific start on a promising year. Jutanugarn followed with a twenty-fifth place finish at the New Zealand Women’s Open.
Using sponsors’ exemptions, she entered the first of four LPGA-sanctioned events she’d play in 2013, the Honda LPGA Thailand, and led the field by three strokes going into the final hole. Disaster struck on the 18th green, coming in the form of Rookie Anxiety. Jutanugarn finished the final hole with a triple and the tournament as runner-up to Inbee Park.
Jutanugarn bounced back and kept putting out a world-class game, finishing in fourth place at the HSBC Womens Champions and then in twelfth place at the World Ladies Championship. The LET moved on to Morocco and Jutanugarn claimed her first pro victory at the Lalla Meryem Cup, where she finished three strokes clear of Beth Allen and another promising rookie, Charley Hull.
When the LET paused, Jutanugarn entered three more LPGA events, the Mobile Bay Classic, the Kingsmill Championship, and the Lotte Championship. She finished inside the top-five in all three events.
At the Kingsmill, Jutanugarn was paired with Germany’s Sandra Gal, a six-foot tall powerhouse, who was amazed at the force of Jutanugarn’s ball striking:
You just hear the sound. She hits it so hard. There’s a lot of potential there, my gosh. There’s no fear. And she makes a lot of putts.
Then, on a lovely summer day during a practice round at the Wegman’s, Ariya was chasing her older sister Moryia, trying to squirt water on her. It was an innocent, playful, sisterly moment and it ended in a shoulder injury for Ariya that required corrective surgery and months of rehab.
With her place in the US Women’s Open, the RICOH Women’s British Open, and The Evian Championship already secured, Jutanugarn’s rookie season was cut short. But in half a year she’d entered nine events, made nine cuts, put her first pro victory and six additional top-five finishes on her resume.
After months of work Ariya Jutanugarn’s back on the course, although she’s not yet played in an LPGA-sanctioned event. She missed the cut at the Women’s Australian Open, finished in a tie for fourth at the World Ladies Championship and in a tie for twelfth at the Lalla Meryem Cup. This will be a year of rebuilding her momentum, testing and gaining confidence in her shoulder, and recovering that powerful, aggressive game that makes her a standout player, poised to join Lexi Thompson, Lydia Ko,
Charley Hull and Minjee Lee lead golf’s next generation of players.
I’m going to enjoy watching Jutanugarn unpack her game this season.