Ariya Jutanugarn seemed to have another championship in the bag. Until she didn’t, and the Kingsmill Championship went to a three-way playoff for the first time in its 14-year history.
No matter. Smiling all the while — after all, she loves to play — Jutanugarn held off Nasa Hataoka and In Gee Chun with birdies on both playoff holes. All three had finished regulation’s 54 holes at 14 under par, but it was the experienced champion who emerged.
Only 22, Jutanugarn won for the eighth time in her career, all coming in her last 57 events. She also became the second player to repeat as Kingsmill champion — Cristie Kerr has won three times.
But even though she’s one of the top players in the world and a former world No. 1, Jutanugarn surprised herself.
“I didn’t expect anything this week because I think I’ve been playing good the last few tournaments (but) I still hadn’t won,” Jutanugarn said. “So I show up this week and I just tell myself, I’m not going to expect anything, I’m just going to focus on the things I can control.
“Before the playoff, I told myself, either I’m going to win or I’m going to finish second. I wouldn’t do worse than that.”
She did better. In winning her first tournament of 2018, she became the LPGA’s 12th different champion in 12 events this year.
Jutanugarn played the par-4 18th hole three times Sunday — water runs the length of the dogleg left hole — with two trips during the playoff. In regulation, Jutanugarn had teed off with a 2-iron and didn’t get as much distance. On the playoff hole, she switched to a 3-wood.
She hadn’t birdied 18 this week in three chances. But on both playoff holes, using the 3-wood, she set herself up for makeable birdie putts — the first from 17 feet, the second from 12 feet.
Chun had been eliminated after parring the first playoff hole. On the second, Hataoka missed her birdie putt from about 18 feet on the edge of the green. Jutanugarn then became the first player in tournament history to win by making a birdie on No. 18.
With four holes remaining in regulation, Jutanugarn had a two-shot lead at 15 under. But she found trouble on No. 15, the final par-5 on the River Course, when she pull hooked her second shot into the rough.
She managed to get herself in position to save par. But her chip shot went about 18 feet past the hole, and she two-putted for bogey.
In the group behind, Hataoka birdied No. 15 with a 12-foot putt to join Jutanugarn at 14 under. Then, on the par-3 17th, Chun made a 20-foot birdie putt to make it a three-way tie.
It took Jutanugarn some time to get over the thought of losing her chance in regulation.
“That was pretty tough for me, because a par-5, I should have a good opportunity to make birdie,” she said. “After that, I got a little bit mad, but my caddie just told me we can't go back and change anything. All we can do is just do what we have now.”
Jutanugarn’s championship came four weekends after her older sister, Moriya, won the LA Open. They are the first pair of sisters to win on the LPGA Tour since Annika and Charlotta Sorenstam.
Jutanugarn is one of five players on tour this year who has played all 12 events. Next week will be No. 13 at the Volvik Championship in Ann Arbor, Mich. A week after that comes the U.S. Women’s Open in Shoal Creek, Ala.
“I like to play,” she said. “When I have a week off, I’m not really practicing, so better for me to keep playing. Of course, I’m going to take some tournaments off.”
Don’t look for that to be Kingsmill next year. Or any year.
“I love it here — not because I won here two years ago, but I have a great memories here,” she said. “I’ve played here since I was, like, 17. Every time when the season starts, I just really want to come back here and play this tournament.”
Johnson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4649.