JUTANUGARN SISTERS LEADING THE CHARGE FOR THAI GOLF
Few players are as closely aligned with the development of golf in their home countries as Ariya Jutanugarn and Moriya Jutanugarn. The sisters are as synonymous with golf in Thailand as Lorena Ochoa is in Mexico or Se Ri Pak in South Korea. Their faces pop up on billboards and in TV advertisements. There’s even a Netflix movie about Ariya’s development into the first Thai golfer, male or female, to win a major championship and reach No. 1 in the World Rankings.
And when Ariya won the 2022 Honda LPGA Thailand to become the first Thai player to win her home country’s championship, she felt she had truly accomplished her ultimate goal.
“Before I won this tournament last year, I'm always like told myself like the only tournament I really want to win and I haven't win yet is LPGA in Thailand,” said Ariya ahead of the 2022 tournament. “You know, didn't want to say this to other people, but one of my biggest dreams was to win in my home country, and I done it last year and it just feels great.”
Certainly, there were female Thai players before the Jutanugarns. Virada Nirapathpongporn won the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur and captured two Epson Tour victories in 2003. In 2004, Russy Gulyanamitta became the first player from Thailand to earn LPGA Tour Membership.
But Ariya and Moriya? They have led the recent surge of excellent players from the Land of Smile. In 2007, the year Ariya qualified for the Honda LPGA Thailand at age 11, Nirapathpongporn was the only LPGA Tour Member from Thailand. Fast forward to 2022 and the Tour boasts 12 Thai players, including 2021 Chevron Championship winner Patty Tavatanakit and much-heralded 2022 rookie Atthaya Thitikul, a 19-year-old who already has four LET wins to her name.
For the sisters, who came to the United States as teenaged amateurs who didn’t know a soul on the junior circuit and struggled to communicate in English, seeing their sisterhood swell on the LPGA Tour makes them feel all the prouder to represent their country.
“I'm very happy that I can see all the new generation, a lot of Thai girls on Tour right now, and make, you know, like make this Tour more stronger and stronger,” said Moriya. “I feel like we are going up, and like even my time like my first year on Tour is only like maybe a few of us on Tour, and like now it feels like everywhere you walk, you know, like on the golf course you probably with speak Thai with someone, which is such a good feeling.”
“I feel like they inspire me in so many ways, the way they work so hard, determination, and really in contention,” Ariya added. “I feel like they going to inspire lots of young kids in Thailand, so that's a good thing.”
ARIYA JUTANGUARN READY TO DEFEND TITLE IN FRONT OF THAI FANS
With the last group in the middle of the 18th fairway on Sunday at the 2021 Honda LPGA Thailand, Mother Nature reared her head at the most inopportune time. Ariya Jutanugarn sat in the clubhouse, thunderstorms swirling in the air, forced to wait more than an hour to see if her mark of -22 would stand for the tournament title. Only Atthaya Thitikul, her teenaged countrywoman playing in the final group, had a chance to take the title away from Jutanugarn.
“I don't know how it's going to be, so that moment, that feeling is kind of pretty awkward for me,” said Ariya of that wait. “Of course, I'm rooting for (Atthaya) and also want myself to win, so it's kind of like so many things happen.”
Big sister Moriya Jutanugarn hung close, even if she didn’t quite know what to do. “I don't think I'm very helping,” she said. “When you are rooting for someone really like support them and cheer for them, it's just like you always feel what they feel. Also, I feel nervous and exciting as well. I mean, it's such a good memory for us and for our family.”
In the end, Thitikul three-putted the final hole. Ariya watched from the putting green and dissolved into tears in the arms of her caddie Pete Godfrey, then the waiting embrace of her sister. The smile on her face as she hoisted the trophy was blinding. Now that smile beams from massive billboards along the highway spectators will take as they turn into Siam Country Club, finally able to support their favorite daughter after two years away from the course due to the pandemic.
“I'm more excited like what going to happen this week, not only for me, but for all the Thai players this week,” said Ariya. “Not really feel pressure because I know everybody just want to support me. I know how I'm doing right now. I just have to keep working on the same stuff and wish and hope it's going to get better like soon.”