BIRMINGHAM, Ala - The weather got nice, Shoal Creek got nasty, Ariya Jutanugarn got up early and 28 holes later she had a four-stroke lead going into the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open conducted by the USGA. Jutanugarn was one of the first players to Shoal Creek on Saturday for the finish of the second round and absolutely the last to leave the practice range before the start of her third round. Now she will be in the final group on Sunday, trying for the second major championship of her young career.
On the nicest day of a week in which nearly 5 inches of rain has fallen, Shoal Creek was a reluctant host, offering up few low scores as the drying course yielded more mud balls to shots that no longer skidded off wet fairways. But the powerful Jutanugarn, again playing without a driver in her bag, attacked the 6,600-yard layout with 3-woods off the tee and turned in a masterful 67.
The 22-year-old ton of talent from Thailand goes into Sunday at 12-under-par 204 with 36-hole leader Sarah Jane Smith at 208 and Hyo Joo Kim at 210 followed by Jihyun Kim at 211. Madelene Sagstrom, who made an early run and got to 6-under par after six holes, was tied for fifth at 4-under-par 212 with Inbee Park and Carlota Ciganda.
Jutanugarn, who awoke at 4 a.m. for the 6:45 a.m. restart of the second round that was pushed back an hour because of nearly an inch of rain Friday night, had to finish 10 holes before joining Smith and Su Oh in the final group of the third round, which began with Smith at 10-under par, Jutanugarn at seven and Oh at six.
Ariya birdied Nos. 1 and 3 to cut Smith’s lead in half but the day turned beginning on No. 8, where Smith made her first bogey of the day. She followed with another bogey on No. 9 while Jutanugarn kicked it into a gear few players have, making birdies on Nos. 11, 13, 14 and 15. Oh, meanwhile, went out in 38 and fell back.
“I told myself to just go out and have fun and be really committed, and I did,” Jutanugarn said. “My putting has been working pretty good. I didn’t hit my tee shots very well, but it was a fun day.”
Smith, winless in 222 LPGA starts, has never been on a stage this large. When she left the range before her round she was followed to the chipping area and then to the putting green by a TV crew, likely a first in her career. But except for the hiccups on Nos. 8 and 9, and a few good birdie putts missed on the low side on the front nine, Smith handled the pressure well. She made par on the first seven holes and the last nine as she shot a 74 after opening with a pair of 67s. Ariya was simply just too good.
“I felt really good and kept my nerves under control, but I think the nerves showed up in my putting,” Smith said. “When you are leaving them short, that’s because of nerves. I have nothing to lose. Hopefully, tomorrow I can go out with a little bit more confidence.”
Jutanugarn, who picked up the eighth win of her LPGA career at Kingsmill two weeks ago, seems to be seeing her enormous talent burst into full bloom and her team is quietly whispering to her exactly how good she is. Swing coach, Gary Gilchrist, worked with her on the range at Shoal Creek while her two game coaches, Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, were in constant contact via phone calls and text messages.
Before the third round, they told Ariya to feel totally committed before stepping into her hitting position and to relax between shots, focusing only on things that are under her control. She did exactly that. And she displayed a vastly improved short game, something she’s been working on. She made nifty up-and-downs on Nos. 3, 4, 6 and 12, the first for birdie and the other three for momentum-maintaining par saves.
“I think I’m going to sleep well tonight,” Jutanugarn said. “I didn’t sleep much last night and I’m really tired. I just want to go out and be proud of myself every day. I'm pretty sure tomorrow is going to be a pretty good day. I don't know what the outcome will be, but I know what I'm going to take action on.”
Jutanugarn picked up her first major championship trophy at the 2016 Ricoh Women’s British Open, a year in which she won five times. There was a point midway through 2017 when she seemed uncomfortable with being a top player. Such feelings appear to be behind her now. Jutanugarn looked like a major champion on Saturday, but tournaments are won on Sunday. That’s when we will find out if she really has ascended to a whole new level of excellence.