Ariya eager to overtake weary Ko as world No. 1 in 2017

Lydia Ko (far left) and Ariya Jutanugarn posing with the LPGA Player of the Year Award trophy. Ariya clinched this year's award after winning a record five titles.
Lydia Ko (left) and Ariya Jutanugarn posing with the LPGA Player of the Year Award trophy. Ariya clinched this year's award after winning a record five titles.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BANGKOK • Ariya Jutanugarn has the No. 1 spot in women's golf on her mind, as she starts her 2017 campaign, trailing arch-rival Lydia Ko by just 3.72 points.

The Thai proved to be the outstanding player this year with the most victories - five - in a single season, including her first Major, the British Women's Open.

"Now that I'm the No. 2 player in the world, my next target is definitely to become the No. 1 player," said Ariya during a press conference at the headquarters of her main sponsor Siam Cement Group (SCG).

"But that will take time. I need to improve on many things when I return to the United States in January. I have to focus on my practice and get ready for the first tournament," added the 21-year-old, who won the prestigious Player of the Year award and the No. 1 ranking on the 2016 Money Leaders list.

"I always wanted to win the Player of the Year award but it just came a lot sooner than I had expected. Now I want to win my next event as soon as possible and enjoy the game that I love every time I enter an event."

Ariya will start her season in the Pure Silk Bahamas KPGA Classic at Paradise Island at the end of next month.

After missing out on a chance to win the early-season ANA Inspiration Major which Ko won, she learnt her lessons quickly and came out strongly to clinch her maiden LPGA title at the Yokohama Tyre Classic.

She went on to pull off a hat-trick of wins with victories at the Kingsmill Championship and LPGA Volik, all in May.

Ariya also enjoyed wins at the British Open and Canadian Pacific Women's Open to add to her trophy collection.

"My attitude changed after the ANA event. I never feared failure and I have been trying to enjoy playing golf more and more," she said.

Her first title, in Alabama, was the turning point in the career of the Thai ace, who had squandered several chances to win before that.

The most painful loss was at the 2013 Thailand LPGA in February, when she had a two-stroke lead going to the final hole before stumbling to a triple-bogey and allowing Park In Bee of South Korea to win in dramatic fashion.

But neither the title nor the spotlight meant most to Ariya as she contemplated her victory on May 8.

It was just two words from her mother Narumon Tiwattanasuk.

"After I won, my mother ran to me, then hugged me and said with tears in her eyes, 'Thank you'. That was the most beautiful memory of my life," said Ariya.

While 2016 was deemed to be a breakthrough year for Ariya, Ko had a good campaign as well despite her off-the-course issues.

In 24 LPGA Tour tournaments, the 19-year-old New Zealander won four times, had 14 top-10s and banked US$3.56 million (S$5.16 million) in earnings.

She won a Major and had two other top-threes in Majors and retained her top ranking throughout the year.

Ko also claimed silver at the Rio Olympics. However, her performances dipped after that as she suffered "late-season fatigue".

She also fired Jason Hamilton, her caddie of two years, and split with instructor David Leadbetter after three years.

Leadbetter told The New Zealand Herald that Ko was physically drained by the time she went to the Evian Championship in September - the final Major of the year.

"I remember looking at her teeing off on Thursday and this girl was spent," he said.

"She'd been doing so much travel, she been trying new equipment out, she'd had these red-eye flights from coast to coast, she'd literally have two days at home and then fly over to France for sponsor commitments with Rolex and Evian who she's contracted to.

"It was a perfect storm and a ho-hum week for her."

But as 2017 approaches, a presumably well-rested Ko may still be Ariya's biggest threat as the duo battle to be the best in women's golf.

THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2016, with the headline 'Ariya eager to overtake weary Ko as world No. 1 in 2017'. Print Edition | Subscribe