Home cooking is not always an easy meal to digest. Ask anyone who’s had the family over for Thanksgiving in an election year. For Ariya Jutanugarn, going home also meant revisiting a sour memory while lugging around a long victory drought and the burden of a nation’s expectations. But all that was cleansed by a tasty final-round 63 that took the Honda Thailand winner’s trophy.
Now Jutanugarn – the first player from Thailand to win on the LPGA Tour – is also her homeland’s latest champion. Her immaculate closing-round – nine birdies, including on No. 18 – put her at 22-under-par 266, one-stroke ahead of Atthaya Thitikul and two better than So Yeon Ryu, Amy Yang, Angel Yin and Patty Tavantanakit.
“It feels great to be able to win a tournament again,” said Jutanugarn, who had gone 1,015 days between her 10th and 11th LPGA Tour victories. “It feels even more great to be able to win in Thailand.”
Jutanugarn had to wait an hour for the last six players to finish as a thunderstorm rolled through Siam Country Club. When play resumed, Thitikul, who was five strokes ahead of Ariya going into Sunday, was unable to birdie the par-5 finishing hole to force a playoff.
Jutanugarn became the first Thai to win the Honda eight years after she almost took the title at 17 when she came to the final hole with a two-stroke lead but made a triple bogey 8 that left her one behind Inbee Park.
“I will say on the 18th hole, I had so much going on, something in my head about 2013 when I made eight,” Jutanugarn said. “Before I hit the shot I told myself, ‘You know what, just do your best and whatever happens, I can take it.’ So, I decided to hit it so hard, 3-wood into the fairway and hit hard 5-iron pin high.”
That awesome power is Jutanugarn’s greatest strength. Reaching a par-5 in two shots with a 3-wood and a 5-iron is something precious few players can do.
That the runner-up up – Thitikul – is also from Thailand highlights the impact Ariya and her sister Moriya have had on Thai golf. What Inbee Park has meant to the game in South Korea, the Jutanugarns have meant in Thailand. Tavatanakit, who finished T-3 at the Honda after winning the ANA Inspiration in April, is also proof of that.
Moriya was the 2013 Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year. In 2016, Ariya became the first LPGA player to make her first three Tour victories consecutive triumphs. She won five times in all, including the AIG Women’s Open, her first major, and captured both Rolex Player of the Year and the Race to the CME Globe.
Ariya won three more times in 2018, including the U.S. Women’s Open, and swept Player of the Year, the Race to the CME Globe, the Rolex Annika Major Award and the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average. Moriya got her first win in 2018, as did Jasmine Suwannapura, who won again in 2019. When Tavatanakit took the ANA, she became the fourth Thai to win on the LPGA Tour.
“It just feels so good, not only for a Thai player to win, but I’ve had a really tough time last two years,” Jutanugarn said, reflecting on the toll taken by her victory drought. “I don't know how many times I told my psychology (team), ‘I want to rest, no more. I want to stop for a while.’”
But the youth of Thailand and her loyal support team kept Jutanugarn grinding. She plays not just for herself and the young golfers of her homeland, but for all the children who are helped by the foundation Ariya and Moriya created.
“Every time when I look at all the kids, I want to give them inspiration,” said Jutanugarn. “So I feel like, don't give up. Do your best. Try harder. Keep trying. One day you will get it.’”
Ariya, who reached No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings in 2017 but came into the Honda Thailand ranked No. 33, has long fought the gremlins that whisper negative thoughts. She has worked with coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson to make her belief match her awesome ability.
“Before the round, I called Pia and Lynn, and today is Pia's birthday, and I talked to them. I'm like, ‘I hit my irons like everywhere. I miss putts. I mean, I feel like it’s so tough for me. What should I do?’” Jutanugarn said.
“They're just like, ‘How about you just go out, have good commitment, and don’t think about the outcome. So can you do that for my birthday present?’” Jutanugarn said. “I think [this was the] first round in the last two years I played without thinking about the outcome. All I wanted to do was have good commitment, making sure I'm proud of the shots I hit.”
If it takes a village raise a child, it takes a team to make a champion.
“I feel like I have a really good team around me,” Jutanugarn said. “They believe in me more than I believe in myself. Without them I'm not who I am right now. So many times, I’ve wanted to stop. Like Pia and Lynn told me this morning, ‘I want you to believe in yourself at the same level that they believe in me.’ After I talked to them I feel like I believe in myself, and one day I'm going to get what I want.”
When Jutanugarn went home this time she stared down her darkest demons. She won for the children of her homeland and for her team. She also won for herself. This time, when Ariya went home, she emerged a champion in what years from now may be viewed as her most important triumph – a victory over self-doubt.