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Golf: ANA loss the Inspiration behind Ariya's fine run

Fellow golfers dousing Ariya Jutanugarn with water after the Thai won the Kingsmill Championship in Virginia in May.
Fellow golfers dousing Ariya Jutanugarn with water after the Thai won the Kingsmill Championship in Virginia in May.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When Thailand's badminton star Ratchanok Intanon clinched the world No. 1 ranking in April, among the thousands of congratulatory messages she received was one from Ariya Jutanugarn.

The gesture was reciprocated a month later, when the golfer became the first Thai winner on the LPGA Tour.

It was the first of three straight victories that catapulted Ariya, ranked 63rd in the world at the start of the year, to a career-high seventh - fuelling her belief that she can emulate her good friend's Ratchanok's rise to the summit.

"She is a great inspiration for not just me but all Thai athletes, and being No. 1 is definitely a dream of mine too," Ariya told The Straits Times last week in a phone interview from Texas.

Both women share the same nickname "May" and were born nine months apart in 1995, with Ratchanok being the older. They had planned on celebrating their recent feats over dinner last month in Bangkok, but non-stop media and sponsor commitments for Ariya, who was home for only three days before returning to the United States, forced them to reschedule.

FULLY IN CHARGE

I had control of everything I could control - my swing, the ball, my emotions. Winning became easier and easier.

ARIYA JUTANUGARN , Thai golfer, on what went right during her three-title winning streak in May.

Increased demands and heightened expectations are now par for the course for Ariya, who is one of four nominees (alongside Lydia Ko, Park In Bee and Brook Henderson) for the prestigious Best Female Golfer ESPY Award this year.

The Thai is one of the headline acts for this week's US Open, which offers a US$4.5 million (S$6.06 million) purse - the largest in women's golf.

Despite her poor record at the Major - two missed cuts from two appearances in 2011 and last year - Ariya is raring to go at the CordeValle Golf Club in San Martin, California.

She said: "I want to win a Major, it doesn't matter which one. It could be this week or in 20 years, but I want one for myself."

She won her first professional event on the Ladies European Tour in 2013 and was tipped to be the game's next big thing until a freak shoulder injury - she fell while chasing her sister Moriya with a water bottle during a practice round - led to a lengthy lay-off and a sharp drop in form.

She came close to capturing her first Major at the ANA Inspiration earlier this year, holding a two-shot lead but bogeying the final three holes before being eventually overtaken by world No. 1 Ko.

That defeat stung but was also a turning point for Ariya, who had missed 10 consecutive cuts last season and admitted she was scared to hit the ball.

She said: "It was three bad holes but I also had 69 good holes. I focused on that and that gave me the belief that I was good enough to win out here."

Her victory march in May was something to behold. In 12 rounds, she recorded 56 birdies and an eagle and pummelled the courses with her precision and power - she is 11th in driving distance this year averaging 268.98 yards but hits mostly a three-wood or long irons.

"It was a nice feeling," she said. "I had control of everything I could control - my swing, the ball, my emotions. Winning became easier and easier."

Yet it is between her ears where her true strength lies, thanks to her work with mental coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson.

When asked what weaknesses in her game she works on, Ariya said: "I don't like to use that word. It's negative. I can always get better and that's what I'm aiming to do."

She and Ratchanok will be Thailand's leading medal hopes at the Aug 5-21 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Only boxers, weightlifters and taekwondo exponents have returned to the kingdom with Olympic medals, and Ariya is determined to see her sport being added to that list.

She remains unfazed by the flurry of high-profile withdrawals from the Rio Games, which include male stars Jason Day and Rory McIlroy and South African Lee-Anne Pace, the first female golfer to pull out from Brazil.

Ariya said: "I'm 100 per cent committed to going and I want to finish in the top three."

Few would bet against this trail-blazing Thai etching her name in the record books.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2016, with the headline 'ANA loss the Inspiration behind Ariya's fine run'. Print Edition | Subscribe