BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA – Talent is a must. Obviously. You don’t win majors, become Player of the Year and reach the No. 1 spot in the Rolex Rankings without gobs of talent. But some championships require more than natural gifts and a good work ethic. Some require wisdom and maturity. Deep self-awareness and a growing comfort in the inevitable discomfort that comes from the toughest challenges in our game.
Ariya Jutanugarn has always been blessed with ability – speed, power and touch to be envied on any tour. She also sees golf differently. Shots that most golfers couldn’t imagine, Mae, as everyone calls her, sees them as if they’re straightforward and obvious. Like the 5-iron from 202 yards that Jutanugarn hit on the par-5 sixth at Shoal Creek on Thursday, a towering rocket-shot that landed just short of the flag and spun to a stop 5 feet from the hole to set up an eagle. And the 3-woods that she hit off most of the tees in the opening round that flew much farther than almost anyone else’s driver. She hits wedges on 155-yard par-3s where many players are hitting 8- or even 7-irons.
But in years past, she has been less-than-comfortable in her own skin, lacking maturity in most things not related to golf.
Mae has evolved more in the last year than any player on tour, not in her game, which has been great for some time, but in her demeanor. She is comfortable now. Mature. When she had her breakout year in 2016 – winning five times and earning Player of the Year honors – she was a wide-eyed girl who with a big, nervous smile who would reflexively move behind her smaller but older sister in any uncomfortable setting. Questions got a lot of one-word answers, not because she was rude but because she was younger in spirit than in age.
Now she is thoughtful, engaging and more confident than ever. After posting an early 67 at Shoal Creek, a round that included five birdies, two bogeys and an eagle, Mae said, “My golf bag didn’t come in on Monday so I only got to play the back nine (on Wednesday). I didn’t see the front so I just trusted my caddie – we work well together – and it worked out. I played really well.”
She won at Kingsmill two weeks ago and has more consistency than at any point in her career.
“I’ve been working on commitment,” Mae said. “It’s pretty tough for me because I’ve been playing pretty well but my focus had been on winning. And I didn’t win. At Kingsmill, I only focused on my commitment. And things worked out.
“By commitment, I mean, in the past, before every shot, I would think about the outcome. Now, I’m trying to do what I can do and that’s it. The outcome is less important than committing to what I can do.”
Those are the words of a new Ariya Jutanugarn, a mature and consistent Ariya Jutanugarn, who, if this trajectory continues, is a potentially dominant major champion.