It’s the picture that sped around the globe, a candid still image that went viral because of where and when it was taken and how well it typified one of the most likable and talented players in the game.
Alena Sharp, a 14-year LPGA veteran from Canada, took the picture. Like a lot of the pros, she hung around Hazeltine National last week to watch another thrilling finish to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. With a section of the gallery roped off for players to exit to scoring, Sharp had a perfect vantage point to shoot Hannah Green making the final 4-footer for the win.
But what Sharp’s photo caught in the background generated all the buzz. Standing on the edge of the green, Ariya Jutanugarn, who started the final round one shot out of the lead but shot 77 on Sunday to finish tied for 10th, put her arm around Lizette Salas and smiled like one of the little girls who filled the Minneapolis gallery. It was perfect. Jutanugarn had been the odds-on favorite for the previous 24 hours. In fact, on the practice tee as the final threesome warmed up before their 11:38 tee times, Karen Stupples said, “Of course May (the nickname the Jutanugarns gave Ariya as a child and the one she prefers) is the favorite. If she plays to 80 percent of her capabilities, nobody out here can touch her.”
But she didn’t play to her capabilities. She had, as golfers sometimes do, one of those days where nothing went right. And yet, rather than drop her head and mope, or stare into the distance as if somebody had killed her dog, the 23-year-old Thai superstar couldn’t wait to see how this one ended; couldn’t wait to hug the champion. Just minutes before Sharp took the photo, Jutanugarn had been standing on the back fringe while Green played the most important bunker shot of her life. When the winner blasted out to 4 feet, Jutanugarn gave her a hearty round of applause.
It’s what she does. It’s who she is.
But it’s not who people have always seen. Jutanugarn has changed in the last three years. Once so shy that she would subconsciously try to hide behind her older (and much shorter) sister, Moriya (who likes to be called Mo), the Ariya Jutanugarn the world now sees is the product of a lot of work.
“The first time we met (the Jutanugarns), when they arrived at Talking Stick (Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz.) and sat down, Mo said, ‘I’ll do most of the talking. My sister doesn’t say very much,’ ” said Lynn Marriott, who, along with Pia Nilsson, created Vision 54, the world-renowned coaching program that focuses on blending mental, physical and spiritual preparations for the game. Marriott and Nilsson have been working with both Jutanugarns for four years. And the results, especially with May, have been extraordinary.
“I used to believe that golf was life, because every time when I played bad I started to be unhappy. I started to be disappointed and I had to learn and know that golf and life are different.” – Ariya Jutanugarn
“So, May didn’t say much that first day,” Marriott said. “But they came to the golf club for three days after that. Throughout those three days, I said, ‘Hey, she talks a lot when you get to know her.’ It didn’t take long to see a side of May that was more extroverted once she feels comfortable and safe. Then when she’d tell stories, we’d see this funny and wise side to her. I thought at the time, ‘Wow, it would be so fun if people got to see this.’ Because, we saw it early on.”
Nilsson jumped in and said, “May can still be a little introverted and sensitive. So, we’ve coached her, not to make great steps, but to take small steps and keep building on it. We keep working to have her gain confidence, to gain the courage to truly be who she is in public. We’re seeing signs of that now, which is great, because she is a really beautiful human being who is really wise for her age.”
That wisdom was on full display at Hazeltine where Jutanugarn said, “I have a lot better commitment now. It is a major and a big week and I felt like I’m so lucky to enjoy this, to be here.”
Then she got deep. “I felt last year I had a great year but I kept thinking about the outcome, especially after you become world No. 1 and you come back and play the next season. I just felt like there were a lot of expectations, not from others but from myself.
“It’s so tough for me to be happy,” she said. “I used to believe that golf was life, because every time when I played bad I started to be unhappy. I started to be disappointed and I had to learn and know that golf and life are different. I had to know that even if I play bad, I still have the best family. My sister is always going to support me, my mom is going to always support me. Once I realized and accepted that, everything was just so happy. I just have to do my best, even if I don’t play well. I still can be happy because I have the best support system.
“And one thing that I also know is, outcome is not under my control,” Jutanugarn said.
“For the last four years, we have posed the questions: ‘Who are you? What do you want to be? What are your values outside of golf?’ ” Nilsson said. “It’s important for us to always be asking those questions so they can learn to focus on things that are meaningful and within their control. It comes down to, ‘What do I want to be? Do I want to be someone who is honest? Do I want to be someone who is happy?’ Then you have to ask, ‘What is in my control?’ You have to answer those questions and then have the courage to take action on that, either on the golf course or off.”
Marriott jumped in and said, “For example, we’ll ask a lot of questions. ‘So, May, how do you want to feel on the golf course today?’ She might say, ‘I want to feel free today.’ And we say, ‘Awesome. So, what do you have to do to feel free?’ She might say, ‘Not look at the leaderboard.’ Or ‘Close the door on a bad shot.’ She’ll give some answers. Then it gets down to very concrete actions. But the way we get there is through open-ended questions.”
Nilsson: “The player needs to own the answers. It could be, ‘I want to be really strong today.’ And then we say, ‘How are you going to make that happen?’ And she will say, ‘I’m going to have really strong body language walking into a shot.’ Or ‘I’m going to be very proud between shots.’ We coach for independence so the players take ownership and don’t depend on us.”
Marriott: “We help players to be strong on the inside. It helps when the outside is supporting you but if you only do it on the outside, it’s not going to last. Having a strong body and strong body language makes supporting the inside much easier.
“Some of the work that Amy Cuddy has done at Harvard on bio-language is interesting. But one of the things we work on is helping them understand what they are feeling and what those feelings are really about. OK, I want to feel strong. What do you want to feel strong about? Are you strong about your decisions? Are you strong because you prepared well? We need to do the inside work, too. The outside piece isn’t always enough.”
Nilsson: “They also need to know why they want to be good beyond world rankings and money lists. There needs to be something that drives them on the inside. Sometimes it’s really hard to find that. But if you don’t, it won’t work.”
Marriott: “Back 20 years ago when Pia and I started this work, we were interested in the research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Unless you have the intrinsic, the extrinsic doesn’t last. For younger players, they’re earning millions of dollars and getting all this recognition and we’re in 2019 where we have social media and social comparisons, so the extrinsic motivators are greater than ever. But Pia and I continue to work to find what intrinsically motivates them.
“Motivation is more than discipline. We ask, ‘Who do you want to be? Who are you as a person?’ Those are deep questions but they are questions that young people need to keep asking. What are the things that they value? What are their beliefs around that? We have to be very sensitive to all the cultures we deal with on that front. But the questions are important human questions.”
Nilsson: “The English words ‘discipline’ and ‘disciple’ are from the same root. So if you are disciplined, you are a disciple to your own beliefs. That’s why the discipline is clear when you really want to do something. Emotions ebb and flow every day. Discipline and intrinsic motivation do not.”
Despite seeming to lack maturity as a player early in her career, Jutanugarn has always responded well to deep questions. She has always sought greater meaning in everything she does.
“When we first started working with May, I immediately thought, ‘Whoa, there is a lot of talent here. How has she not won yet?’ ” Marriott said. “Well, it was because she hadn’t learned how to commit to decisions, knowing what to focus on over the ball. She had enormous talent when she was 11. But it wasn’t until she learned to manage herself that she learned how to play and win.
“May has also seen what’s happened to Yani (Tseng) and some other players (who had enormous success that fell away) and she’s wondered about it. What made Annika (Sorenstam) have a sustainable career? How did Juli Inkster have such a long career versus some of these others? She asks those questions. When Rory (McIlroy) talked more candidly about (the ebbs and flows of a career) at the Players Championship this year, we sent her some of those videos.
“What people need to realize is that May is the face of sports in Thailand. It’s a lot. And, if you don’t have people you can talk to about it, things can spiral out of control. If you don’t have the other things (in your life) in place, it doesn’t matter if you win 10 times a year. You can be incredibly successful and see your life fall apart.”
Jutanugarn spoke to that and more last week in Minnesota.
“Of course. I can be nervous with whoever I play with,” Jutanugarn said. “I’m very sensitive. When I play with my sister I can still be nervous. That’s the kind of person I am. But I’ve talked to Pia and Lynn the last few months almost every day because I felt like I had lost who I am or who I wanted to be. Then, in the last few months, I realized that life and golf are different.
“This season I haven’t worried much about what people expect of me. I feel like to compare myself to last year or to 2016 is unfair. One thing I know is that everything is going to be different. Every year is going to be different. I’m always learning something new every day. So, (life) can never be the same.”
“Most people don’t grow up and figure out who they are until their mid-20s,” Nilsson said. “These players are already superstars by then. If you are a normal 20-year-old, you grow up and go to college and get a job and most people don’t notice. But if you are a superstar athlete, you are under a microscope and you have all these expectations.
“For May, golf has been such a huge part of her life and she has been so recognized because of that. We are extremely proud of her for realizing that (golf and life are different) at such a young age.”
Ariya Jutanugarn during the second round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club. Photo: Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports
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