BIRMINGHAM, Ala - On a Sunday in which Hyo Joo Kim tested her by applying withering pressure with a sizzling putter, Ariya Jutanugarn captured the 73rd U.S. Women’s Open conducted by the USGA after a week at Shoal Creek that was one of the most demanding in major championship history. With washed out practice rounds, early wake up calls and weather delays, it was fitting that it took four playoff holes before Jutanugarn claimed the trophy from Kim and recorded her second major championship victory.
On a day that had more plot twists than one of the Thai soap operas Jutanugarn loves, Ariya entered the final round with a four-stroke lead over Sarah Jane Smith and six ahead of Kim, Jutanugarn had the pressure of protecting a lead large enough that if she didn’t win the word “collapse” would be tossed around. That pressure intensified when she took a seven-stroke lead over Kim to the back nine on Sunday after a blistering 32 on the front.
But her first poor swing of the day led to a triple bogey on No. 10 and, while Ariya struggled to a 41 on the back nine, Kim was rolling in putts from all over Alabama as she shot a 67 in the only bogey-free round of the final day. On No. 12, Kim made a 40-foot birdie putt and on No. 15 she holed it from 50 feet, putting from off the green to get within one.
After Jutanugarn missed a 12-foot par putt on No. 18 that would have won the tournament, Ariya and Kim finished 72 holes tied at 11-under-par 277, four strokes ahead of Carlota Ciganda. Danielle Kang was fourth at 285 with Lexi Thompson, Wei-Ling Hsu, amateur Patty Tavatanakit and Smith at 286. Because of the victory, Jutanagarn is projected to move to No. 2 in the Rolex Ranking.
In the first use of the new two-hole aggregate playoff for USGA Open championships, Kim rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the first hole – No. 14 – while Jutanugarn made par. On the second hole – No. 18 – Kim failed to make up-and-down from a greenside bunker while Jutanugarn made a great chip from behind the green and rolled in a 5-foot putt to push the extra session to sudden death.
Going back out to No. 14, Kim barely missed a 20-foot birdie try that would have won it and then Jutanugarn rolled in a 4-footer after a brilliant bunker shot. On the fourth and final playoff hole, both players had bunker shots with Kim leaving hers 15 feet from the hole while Jutanugarn hit hers to 18 inches. Kim missed; Jutanugarn made and that – final – was that.
“I'm really honored to join the list of winners before me,” said Jutanugarn, who adds her name to Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak and Inbee Park as the only ones to win both the U.S. Women’s Open and the Ricoh Women’s British Open. “On the front nine, I did everything I want to do, but that back got me a lot.”
After the errant tee shot on No. 10, which soared into the right-side hazard, Jutanugarn said she was “a little bit scared my next shot.” Then her caddie, Les Luark, stepped in. “So I tee off on 11, I told my caddie, ‘I don't know how to hit this one,’” Jutanugarn said. “He's like, ‘Come on, do you want to win?’ I'm like, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Okay. Then we have to do it.’”
And win they did, despite Kim’s relentless effort.
The 22-year-old Kim, who set the major championship scoring record when she shot a 61 in the first round of her victory in the 2014 Evian Championship, was brilliant all week. She led the field in driving accuracy, hitting 91.7 percent of the fairways and missing only one on Sunday, and was second in total putts, using only 25 in the final 18 holes and averaging 26.63 for the 72 holes of regulation.
“I started off quite a few strokes behind the leader, so I didn't really think that I was going to come through this much,” Kim said. “I feel very good about how I played, especially that I did not have any bogey today on the final round. When I made that putt [on No. 15] I felt like the luck was with me today.”
Jutanugarn bent, but didn't break, just as she bounced back from squandering a two-stroke lead with three holes to play in the 2016 ANA Inspiration to win five times that year, including the Ricoh Women’s British Open on her way to a Rolex Player of the Year season. But back then she ran from success.
On June 12, 2017, she ascended to No. 1 in the Rolex Ranking but quickly succumbed to the pressure, missing five cuts in seven tournaments, including four consecutive major championships. It wasn’t until the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship that she got back on track, closing with a pair of 67s for the victory.
Since then, she had been a whole new player, in fact a whole new person, someone suddenly comfortable in the spotlight. She’s played all 14 LPGA events this year, winning twice with 10 top-10 finishes.
“We worked on dealing with the implications of success,” says Pia Nilsson, who along with fellow Vision 54 coach Lynn Marriott are on Jutanugarn’s coaching team. “She needed some space to grow into. We also worked on her finding her own motivation: Why she wants to be a top player. She is still young and in the process of maturing into the next level of commitment.”
To Jutanugarn’s great credit, she listened to the wise voices around her. Another one of those on her team is swing coach Gary Gilchrist.
“She noticed that she was trying to be perfect and went back to her competitive personality of playing golf her way,” says Gilchrist. “Her way is focused, determined and thrives on competition. She has an inner confidence of knowing that she can win.”
At only 22, Jutanugarn has had a lot of good and bad in her career and on Sunday she saw a lot of both. In the end, the toughness she’s developed from past struggles carried her through in what was a truly a major championship performance under the most difficult of circumstances.