Ariya Jutanugarn is coming round reluctantly to the quirky nature of links golf and that makes the world’s No. 1 player an even more dangerous prospect heading into the Women’s British Open this week.
In the early stage of her career, Jutanugarn refused to adapt to the fierce winds and undulating fairways that define links courses, and it came at a cost.
“I try to hit the ball so hard,” the Thai player said of her past mindset when playing links golf, “and even when the wind blows really hard like right to left, I’m not going to aim right. I’m just going to go at the pin and miss like 30 yards left.”
And the turning point might have come last week at the Ladies Scottish Open.
Jolted by the “yells” of her caddy, Jutanugarn finally started to modify her game by factoring in the wind and playing what she described as “half shots” and “defend shots.” The result? A one-stroke win for her first ever title on a links course, a feat she thought she’d never achieve.
It fuels her belief that she can add another victory on the links at Royal Lytham & St. Annes when the fourth major of the year starts on Thursday.
“I feel more comfortable,” said Jutanugarn, who won the Women’s British Open in 2016 when it was staged on a parkland course at Woburn. “I feel better. But I think this type of golf course might not be the one that (I) say, ‘Oh, I love this one.’ It might not be that way. But I’m getting better.”
There has never been more depth to the women’s game — 18 different players won in the first 20 events on the LPGA Tour this season — yet it feels like the 22-year-old Jutanugarn is still standing out above the rest.
She has won three times this season, including the U.S. Women’s Open in June, and last week’s victory in Scotland put her back atop the rankings for the second time in her career. The first time was in June 2017 and it lasted only two weeks, as she struggled to deal with her new-found status and went on to miss the cut at the remaining major championships that year.
There’s a widespread feeling that Jutanugarn, now more mature and disciplined, might stay there longer this time.
“Maybe because last year, one of the goals I told my caddie (was) I want to be No. 1 one time in my life. I don’t care how long it be, but I want to be,” she said. “… So I think that is not the one I’m thinking about, like No. 1 or anything. So right now I feel OK.”
The key this week for Jutanugarn and the other 143 players in the field in northwest England will be staying out of the 206 bunkers dotted around Lytham, which is hosting the tournament for the fourth time.
Defending champion In-Kyung Kim said it is her “favorite golf course in the entire world” despite misery at Lytham in the past, including her first experience there in 2009.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ It was true links,” Kim said. “I was going into every bunker and I just cried like crazy because I’ve never experienced not getting out of a bunker. A lot of times I can get out of it, but not here.”
“It’s very tight golf course,” the South Korean added, “and I think it suits my game very well. But at the same time if I don’t execute it well, then I’ll get punished.”
The only member of the world’s top 20 missing this week is No. 5 Lexi Thompson, who is taking time out to “recharge my mental batteries” after a tough 18 months that included getting a four-stroke penalty which cost her victory at the ANA Inspiration last year.
It deprives the United States of its best golfer as the country seeks a first Women’s British Open champion since Mo Martin in 2014.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80