NAPLES, FLORIDA | She didn’t know. After firing a second consecutive 66 in the third round of the CME Group Tour Championship and playing her last 27 holes 13 under par, Ariya Jutanugarn, who turned 23 on Saturday, was asked if she planned to take her family and friends out for a birthday meal.
“I don’t plan to,” Jutanugarn said. “But maybe I have to. I have no idea.”
Turned out she didn’t. Her sister, Moriya, planned a surprise birthday bash at the house the family rented near Tiburón Golf Club. All the Jutanugarns, many of their tour friends, as well Ariya’s caddie ,Pete Godfrey and Pete’s wife, LPGA Tour player Jane Park, celebrated. But even though Ariya didn’t know about the festivities ahead of time, she vowed not to indulge in cake. She’s sworn off sweets and has lost 20 pounds over the course of the season.
“I love to have dessert,” she said. “I can have cake even right before I play so right now I have to cut down. I can have only one bite or two bites if I want to because I have issues.”
Her family has a history of diabetes. Neither of her parents nor Moriya have problems but her grandparents and several aunts and uncles have issues with blood sugar.
“So basically I got yelled at by my mom because I kept eating lots of desserts,” Ariya said. “I had a blood test and everything come back pretty bad so I had to cut down. I can have only one bite or two bites if I want to because I have issues.”
The weight loss has affected her ball-striking. She came into the week ranked 66th in driving accuracy and 47th in greens in regulation. But she is still ranked in the top-10 in putting and is first on the LPGA Tour in birdies, eagles and sub-par holes, having played 420 holes under par this year.
Under normal circumstances, a season that includes 9 top-10s and only one missed cut would be a success. But coming off 2018 where Ariya became the first player in history to capture every major LPGA Tour award, including Rolex Player of the Year, the Vare Trophy, the Rolex Annika Major Award and the Race to the CME Globe, all while sitting atop the Rolex Rankings, a winless 2019 has left many fans wondering what went wrong.
The answer is, nothing. Golf is hard. There were a few more missed fairways this year than last, and not quite one more missed green per round. But those things add up over a season.
The CME Group Tour Championship was a perfect microcosm of Jutanugarn’s year. After a miserable 76 on Thursday where she had a two-way miss, she shot 37 on the front nine on Friday but flipped a switch on the cart ride between 9 and 10.
“After my front 9 (on Friday) I didn’t give a crap,” she said. “I thought, okay, don't give up. Just play the golf best you can. So actually after my front 9, I thought, okay what am I going to do? I'm going to go shopping on Monday; I'm going to leave on Tuesday. So from that point forward, I didn’t expect anything at all. I told myself, I'm making sure I have no fear when I swing. Just hit the ball. Even if I finish last, just make sure if you’re going to miss it everywhere, make sure it’s not because of fear. Just hit the ball.
“So that turned out pretty good. I should of thought that way before the first round.”
Once she began playing fearlessly, Jutanugarn shot 29 on the back nine on Friday and came within 6 inches of making an albatross on the par-5 14th after hitting two 3-woods a couple of rolls short of the hole. On Saturday, she kept it going with six birdies and no bogeys.
“With everything that’s gone on, I’ve learned so much this year,” she said when asked to assess 2019. “It’s been a success. I learned to be more patient. I understand that I can do my best but that doesn't mean the outcome is going to be the way I want. I learned that I just need to be patient. This year has tested me by doing that.
“Tomorrow, I'm making sure I do the same thing, play with no fear,” she said. “I want to make sure I have good feelings and (good) memories before the off-season. Because I know I'm not going to touch the golf club for like five weeks. I have to making sure I have good memories before I take a month off.”
The birthday surprise will be a good memory. A solid finish in Naples would provide another.