LET rookie Ariya Jutanugarn narrowly missed out on claiming her first professional title when she finished one stroke behind the Honda LPGA Thailand winner Inbee Park on Sunday.
It was so nearly a fairytale finish for the 17-year-old Thailand native Jutanugarn. The victory came as a bit of a shock to Park as she trailed by two shots when she finished her round. But Park ended up with a one-stroke victory less than 15 minutes later when Jutanugarn lipped out a 3-foot-putt for double bogey on the par-5 18th hole.
Things fell apart quickly for Jutanugarn on 18. After hitting her second shot into the front right bunker, Jutanugarn had to take a drop and a one-stroke penalty for an unplayable lie. She then hit her fourth shot over the green and with a tricky downhill shot facing her, she left it short with the ball still on the fringe. Her putt -- her sixth shot of the hole -- slid by and she had about a 3-foot uphill putt left to make for double-bogey in order to force a playoff. But the putt rimmed the hole and Jutanugarn tapped in for an eight which gave Park the one-shot victory.
“On No. 17 when I missed that birdie putt I thought that this game might be over because she was at 14 [under-par] and it was a two-stroke lead coming into the last hole,” Park said. “I knew she was a long hitter so she had a chance to go ahead. So yeah I just didn’t expect this kind of finish. Out of all the other wins, this win just felt like it was not as much work this week. It was a lot easier this week for me.
“But I really want to congratulate Ariya for her fantastic golf the last four days. She has a lot of fans out here and she’s very talented. So I think I’ll be seeing more of her.”
Park trailed Jutanugarn by four shots entering Sunday’s final round but charged back with a final round 5-under 67 to take home her fourth career victory.
Continuing the Momentum: The 2012 season was a breakout year for Inbee Park and so it seemed almost disappointing for her that the year had to come to an end last November at the CME Group Titleholders. But despite the nearly three-month layoff from competition, the 24-year-old from South Korea didn’t waste any time getting that momentum back in her first event of the 2013 season.
Park, who broke through with a victory at the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open during her second year on the LPGA Tour, went nearly four years before capturing her second win. She played in a total of 72 tournaments over that stretch without a victory. But in her last 12 events, Park has three wins along with five runner-up finishes.
“I thought it would take some time for me to get back into the position that I was in last year and I was going to take it easy and go slow,” Park said. “It just happened on the first tournament. It just feels like it’s the continuous of last year. I’ll just keep trying to keep up this play and hopefully have a few more wins this year.”
Heartbreaking finish: As Inbee Park stood just outside the scoring tent and watched the drama unfold on the 18th hole, she couldn’t even hide her surprise at what was happening. She seemed in shock when she realized that she had captured a victory, although she admitted that it was a little bittersweet considering what happened to the 17-year-old hometown favorite. After signing her scorecard, Jutanugarn walked up to Park and gave her a hug congratulating her despite the tears that filled her eyes.
Park certainly understood the heartbreak that Jutanugarn must have been feeling at coming so close to being the first player from Thailand to win on the LPGA Tour. But she commended how the 17-year-old handled the pressure over the four days of being in contention.
“If I was in Ariya’s situation, I would be very, very nervous and I don’t’ think I would have handled the pressure until the last hole,” Park said. “I think she handled the pressure well today and this week. Just the last day, I just think it’s going to happen. I think something like this happening is just experience under her belt. She’s going to be a great player later on.”
Everyone seemed surprise by the outcome as it had appeared to be Jutanugarn’s day after she made a hole-in-one on the 145-yard, par-3 12th . The ace moved Jutanugarn back into a one-shot lead over Park after she had fallen one behind the Rolex Rankings No. 4 player. She then birdied the 13th to take a three-shot lead over Park. But a bogey on the 14th cut it to two shots and then things just went awry on the final hole.
“It just made me feel confident because before that hole I wasn’t very confident,” Jutanugarn said of her hole-in-one. “My driver and my irons were not very good. I think after 12 my driver feel OK and my irons like feel better. Just a bad hole on 18.”
Sister, Sister! Ariya isn’t the only young talented golfer in her family. Her 18-year-old sister Moriya is a rookie on the LPGA Tour and finished T3 in the LPGA’s season-opening event in Australia last week. Both of the Jutanugarns played in this week’s field as sponsor invites and Moriya finished T59.
Despite their young age, the sisters both already boast impressive resumes. Ariya won the Ladies European Tour Final Qualifying Stage to earn status on the Tour for this season. She was ranked the No. 2 amateur in the world at the time of her victory. That came two weeks after her sister, Moriya, earned co-medalist honors at the LPGA’s Final Qualifying School.
Ariya also won the 2010 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship and the 2011 U.S. Girls Junior Championship. She earned low amateur honors at the 2011 and 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Inbee Park, Rolex Rankings No. 4
MODERATOR: We’d like to welcome our 2013 Honda LPGA Thailand champion, Inbee Park into the interview room. Congratulations. I’m sure this victory comes at a little bit more of a surprise to you then some of your others you’ve had in the past. Take me through your day and what it was like sitting there watching that last hole.
INBEE PARK: I played very good today. I shot 5-under today. On No. 17 when I missed that birdie putt I thought that this game might be over because she was at 14 and it was a two-stroke lead coming into the last hole. I knew she was a long hitter so she had a chance to go ahead. So yeah I just didn’t’ expect this kind of finish. Out of all the other wins, this win just felt like it was not as much work this week. It was a lot easier this week for me and I really want to congratulate Ariya for her fantastic golf the last four days. She has a lot of fans out here and she’s very talented. So I think I’ll be seeing more of her.
Q. That 5-under round was a pretty impressive way to finish on Sunday. What were the keys to your round today and how were you able to shoot such a fantastic score to put yourself back in contention?
INBEE PARK: Today my goal was just to strike the ball a little bit better than the last two days because I was having a tough time with my ball going to the right the last two days. I was just trying to fix it out there. This is the first tournament of the year and I was just trying to get my rhythm going for the rest of the season. It was much better today.
Q. We talked about your great year in 2012, especially in the second half and it almost seemed a bad time to have a layoff because you were playing so well. How were you able to take the momentum of playing so well in 2012 and bring it into the first event of the 2013 season?
INBEE PARK: I thought it would take some time for me to get back into the position that I was in last year and I was going to take it easy and go slow. It just happened on the first tournament. It just feels like it’s the continuous of last year. I’ll just keep trying to keep up this play and hopefully have a few more wins this year.
Q. With the confidence level you built, from Evian last year you seemed to put together an amazing stretch of golf. You had gone almost four years without a win. Once you got that win has it almost seemed like after that second career victory, things became easier?
INBEE PARK: Golf became a little bit easier for me starting the middle of May last year. I hit the ball much better and I’m putting very good starting last season. Everything has been improved in my game and I just want to try to keep improving.
Q. You talked last year about having your fiancé out here and how that has helped with your golf. He’s still out here traveling with you and what difference does it make for you to have him?
INBEE PARK: It’s good because I can forget about golf when I’m not at the golf course. I think that’s the best part about traveling with him. Even when we’re on the golf course, you just have someone who is on your side totally.
Q. Any wedding plans yet?
INBEE PARK: No, not yet [laughs] No dates yet.
Q. Before 18, when were you really aware of how close you were to the lead. Were you aware that you ahd the lead earlier at one point? Were you paying attention to the leaderboards all day?
INBEE PARK: After I turned 9, I thought I had a chance of winning but I tried not to look at the leaderboard until 15, 16. But I looked on No. 15 and I was three back so I knew I had to make a couple birdies to at least have a chance but I made all pars and it was enough.
Q. We all feel for Ariya and what she went through on 18, what kind of experience does this entire week give her and what does this performance say about her in the fact that she’s 17 years old and to be in contention like that right until the end?
INBEE PARK: If I was in Ariya’s situation, I would be very, very nervous and I don’t’ think I would have handled the pressure until the last hole. I think she handled the pressure well today and this week. Just the last day, I just think it’s going to happen. I think something like this happening is just experience under her belt. She’s going to be a great player later on.
Ariya Jutanugarn, Rolex Rankings No. 171
Q. First off, just take me through the day. What was it like with all of the Thai fans out there rooting you on and then to have the hole in one on the 12th hole?
ARIYA JUTANUGARN: I enjoy to play here today. It was so much fun. Have hole in one and birdie also. Hole in one on 12 and then birdie on 13. I just have one really bad hole on 18.
Inbee Park was leading after the front nine, I think I still have a chance. Then I holed in one the 12 follow by a birdie on the 13, I was thinking this is my time. On the 18 hole I was leading by 2 shots but anything could happen I was thinking well the worst is to bogey the 18 and I still win this tournament. I admitted that I should not try to get aggressive on the 2nd shot, Instead I should lay up and get on the green on the 3rd shot. Then I faced a very difficult putt from outside the green, I left it short. Then another putt passed the hole. I had about 4 footer putt to save double bogey and to make a play off. It was lipped off. The rest is history. Thanks for the Thai fans, they have been supporting me all week. Thank you very much.
Q. What were the emotions like on 12 when you made that hole-in-one?
ARIYA JUTANUGARN: It just made me feel confident because before that hole I wasn’t very confident. My driver and my irons were not very good. I think after 12 my driver feel OK and my irons like feel better. Just bad hole on 18.
Q. What happened with the drop on 18?
ARIYA JUTANUAGARN: My second shot was down the slope and I just had to drop. My fourth shot went over the green and then the putt short is very normal because that’s a very hard shot. I’m so sad when I miss like a 3-foot putt uphill.
Q. A tough moment but can you take something from how well you played all week?
ARIYA JUTANUAGARN: It was a great experience. It’s not like I just played not very good, she played very good today and I just say congrats to [Inbee]. She’s a very nice player.
Yani Tseng, Rolex Rankings No. 1
Q. Great round today…
YANI TSENG: Thank you. It was getting better today. I give myself a lot of opportunities to make birdie out there. It could have been a lot lower. I was hitting the shots good. I was really happy because the first three rounds I didn’t play quite well. It’s always good to finish strong and finish top-10 on Sunday. So I’m very happy. I didn’t win but I still know my game is pretty good. I was pretty happy to see the Thai girl playing well and so young. I just happy to finish this week. I’m glad I call my coach yesterday and figure out what I can do to play better. Something with my swing was wrong because I could feel it. That’s why I don’t feel like I could control distances good like last week. Today after I talk to my coach, I work on some drills this morning and I’m hitting the ball so much better and controlling my distances much better.
Q. What did you figure out in your swing?
YANI TSENG: Just a little tweak. A little bit of feel and narrow a little bit. Nothing much.
Q. What is it about Sundays that seems to bring out the best of your game? Last week 7-under and this week 9-under?
YANI TSENG: Haha it’s good. Hopefully next week I can start a little earlier and still finish strong. I feel like this is more like me. When I play my best I always finish strong on the weekend but last year at the end on the weekend I’m always struggling. But this is what I like to feel – to play aggressive and have fun and relax. Because today I go out there and I try to make birdie every hole.
Q. What did you think about the performance of Ariya today and that hole in one?
YANI TSENG: I heard the hole in one. It was a very, very big crowd today and you can hear that she made a putt on many holes. I didn’t know she made a hole in one until the last hole when they announced it. So I’m very impressed. I know she’s only 17 but now with so many younger players playing on the Tour that have lots of talent and lots of potential. We better watch out. We better keep working hard. I’m 24, still young but I don’t’ feel that I’m as young as before anymore. But it’s good, sometimes you get more experience when you’re on Tour longer so I’m really happy always to have someone to compete with.
Q. Two solid weeks in a row, how do you feel about your game right now?
YANI TSENG: I was pretty happy. I was working hard in the offseason and working hard with my coach. I got my swing working more consistently than before so I was very happy out there. I seem much more relaxed than last year and I think that’s a big improvement for me, smile more and be more relaxed on the course.