HSBC Women’s World Championship 2019

The people's champion

From far left: Georgia Hall, Lexi Thompson, defending champion Michelle Wie, Ryu So-yeon and world No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn at Singapore's latest attraction - Jewel Changi Airport - before they get down to business at the HSBC Women's World Championshi
From left: Georgia Hall, Lexi Thompson, defending champion Michelle Wie, Ryu So-yeon and world No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn at Singapore's latest attraction - Jewel Changi Airport - before they get down to business at the HSBC Women's World Championship.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
From far left: Georgia Hall, Lexi Thompson, defending champion Michelle Wie, Ryu So-yeon and world No. 1 Ariya Jutanugarn at Singapore's latest attraction - Jewel Changi Airport - before they get down to business at the HSBC Women's World Championshi
Ariya JutanugarnST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Ariya opens her heart to the media and shows that she is as down to earth as she is talented

When she was not snacking on crispy fish skin in between interviews, Ariya Jutanugarn was laughingly dishing out sister feud snippets, openly baring her weaknesses and insecurities, and having the media eat out of her hand.

When the HSBC Women's World Championship commences tomorrow, the charming Thai will again be the golfer to watch.

She is honest, hilarious and also wonderfully talented.

Last year, she swept most of the season's major honours - the Annika Major Award for the best record in all five Major championships, the Player of the Year award, the Vare Trophy with a scoring average of 69.415, and topping the money list with US$2,743,949 (S$3.7 million).

She is clearly an extraordinary athlete, but also a refreshingly normal person.

"I just want to be myself, have fun, and improve every day," said the 23-year-old, who picked up golf from a young age as her parents also played the sport and owned a golf shop.

"I never want to be like others. I love myself so much. I want to be honest to myself, I'm not going to do things I don't like to do."

Ariya reckoned this mindset is crucial for her to regain the fearless form she had in her breakthrough season in 2016 when she won her first Major (the Women's British Open) and four other events.

She knows her world No. 1 status will not last forever, but the joy of playing the sport she loves could.

JUST BEING ME

I never want to be like others. I love myself so much. I want to be honest to myself, I'm not going to do things I don't like to do.

ARIYA JUTANUGARN, Thai world No. 1, who wants to regain the fun feeling on the golf course.

"Becoming No. 1 for the first time (in 2017) was so tough for me because I felt lots of pressure," said Ariya, who launched a foundation with older sister Moriya, 24, in 2017 to help needy children and families in Thailand.

"Everyone was expecting me to play well all the time, but that's not true. I just needed to be myself and have fun and understand that we are human and we make mistakes.

"I don't feel the burden of being No. 1 any more because I know what I'm doing. I'm talking to you as world No. 1 now but, next Monday, I may not be, so I don't pay attention to the rankings.

"The outcome might not be that good as last year, but I'm not worried about the outcome and I'm not scared of anything.

"I used to have so much fun and I was so happy to be on the golf course. But I don't have that feeling for two years already, so now I just want to have that feeling again."

She may seem relaxed now, but it's been a learning process. As she admitted, again with a hearty laugh, there was a time she would smash and break clubs in half after a bad shot, a habit she has since kicked.

When she was not talking candidly about her game, the easy-going golfer was telling fun stories about herself and Moriya. They will share a room again this week and, while Ariya has a tidy game, she cannot keep a clean room.

Sheepishly, she admitted: "My mum is coming on Friday and she will clean up for me."

Living with her sister on tour can be a constant adventure which naturally involves the occasional quarrel. As she said: "Last week, we roomed together and fought so bad before the tournament... I thought we won't talk to each other again. But, on the first tee, she talked to me, so I talked to her."

Family comes first and the only things she splurged on from her $3.7 million earnings last year were a bag and diamond earrings for her mother. But nothing for herself.

LPGA commissioner Michael Whan hailed the Jutanugarns' authenticity, and is proud to have the bright and bubbly personalities as ambassadors of the tour.

He said: "Ariya is impressive and a little bit intimidating. She does it in an incredibly friendly way, clapping for you and high-fiving you but, at the end of the day, she is scarily good.

"Suzanne Pettersen talked about looking up at the leaderboard to see where she was and where Annika Sorenstam was. She said, for her, that person became Lorena Ochoa and I think Ariya is that person today. Everybody wants to know where she is on the leaderboard because she is that good.

"They hated that Lorena beat them, but they loved her as a person. I think Ariya has got a lot of the same kind of qualities. They totally respect her as a competitor, she is a little bit intimidating, but she is hard not to like because she is just so likeable, like her sister.

"You find yourself rooting for people like that because they are good people inside out."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2019, with the headline 'The people's champion'. Print Edition | Subscribe