Jutanugarn's new-found poise evident in Kingsmill victory

.@Jutanugarn an inspiration to her older sister

Facing an extended wait in the ninth fairway Sunday, Ariya Jutanugarn took a seat on her bag and chilled with her caddie, Les Luark. If any nerves accompanied her quest for a second consecutive LPGA Tour victory, Jutanugarn sure was masking them well.

When the group ahead finally cleared the green, Jutanugarn's new-found comfort as a final-round leader was evident, indeed. With nary a practice swing and a very brief set-up, she stiffed her approach to within 2 feet and made the subsequent birdie putt.

Nine holes, one final birdie and one testy par save later, Jutanugarn had won the Kingsmill Championship.

She pronounced Sunday "a lot easier" than her victory two weeks ago in Alabama. "I didn't get too nervous or excited until the last putt."

The last putt was a 5-footer for par, this after a poor approach and quality chip from about 80 feet. Jutanugarn center-cutted the putt for a 14-under-par total, one shot clear of Su Oh.

Time was when Jutanugarn was awkward and skittish atop a leaderboard, scars created at the 2013 LPGA Thailand. Then 17 years old, she enjoyed a two-shot edge standing on the final tee.

But an unplayable lie in a bunker followed by a botched chip and three putts translated to a triple-bogey and a gift-wrapped victory for Inbee Park. Worse yet, the collapse occurred in her homeland with so many fans watching.

Two months later, Jutanugarn rebounded with a European Tour victory in Morocco. Still, she yearned to become the first from Thailand to win a LPGA event, to fully expunge the memories of that triple.

Including the Thailand event, Jutanugarn played five LPGA tournaments in 2013 as a non-member, finishing among the top four in all of them. Competing on a sponsor's exemption at Kingsmill, she tied for third after a sterling 66 on Sunday left her two shots out of a Cristie Kerr-Suzann Pettersen playoff.

A right shoulder injury derailed Jutanugarn's 2014, and in February of the following year she lost a three-way playoff — Sei Young Kim was the champion — at the LPGA's Bahamas event. But that was the highlight of a season that went south with 10 straight missed cuts.

This year brought more heartache. At the first major, the ANA Inspiration, Jutanugarn bogeyed the final three holes — her tee shot at 18 found the water — and lost to Lydia Ko by two.

"She had to go through a lot of things," said Moriya Jutanugarn, Ariya's older sister, best friend and LPGA Tour colleague.

And just in case her audience didn't know the details, Moriya relayed them, a sign that not only Ariya but also her entire family never tried to hide from those disappointments. Rather, they tried to learn from them.

The lessons Ariya learned manifested themselves two weeks ago at the Yokohama Tire Classic. A third-round 63, which included eight birdies on the inward nine, gave her a three-shot cushion, and she held on to defeat Amy Yang, Stacy Lewis and Morgan Pressel by one.

A "breakthrough," Ariya said.

Moriya has seen a different Ariya since Alabama. More self-assured, less nervous, more at peace.

And Kingsmill's River Course was an ideal venue for her to win again. She birdied the opening three holes and six of the first seven during her first competitive round here, a 7-under 64 in 2013, and led that tournament after 18 and 36 holes.

"She's a world-class player," Kingsmill general manager Wayne Nooe said then in explaining the sponsor's exemption to Jutanugarn.

Talk about prescient.

Ariya combined her world-class talent and poise for the clinching birdie Sunday at the 15th hole. She split the fairway of the par-5 with an extra-long drive, and after a pedestrian approach strayed left, she hit a dicey chip to within tap-in range.

As with most of her shots these days, Ariya was decisive on the defining chip, trusting her instincts. Pull the club, take a stance, swing.

"I just want to play golf, have fun, enjoy every good shot," she said.

Moriya enjoyed the victory almost as much as Ariya, leading the charge of players who doused the champion with water on the 18th green. The sisters compete in everything, from tennis to swimming to golf, but their love and support for one another is unmistakable.

Moriya matched her best career finish in April with a fourth at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii. If and when she breaks through, the Jutanugarns would join the Sorenstams, Annika and Charlotta, as the only sisters to win on the LPGA Tour.

"I'll wait until it's my turn," Moriya said. "She really inspires me."

As Ariya's victory news conference closed, a student reporter asked another sibling question: Will you share your money — Ariya won $195,000 — with your sister?

"I'm not going to share my money with my sister," Ariya said with a smile, "but I might … get something for her."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette