By Andrew Both
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – A year after narrowly averting what arguably would have been the biggest ever collapse in major golf, defending champion Ariya Jutanugarn arrives at this week’s U.S. Women’s Open seeking to spark her game back to life.
Though she has not missed a cut this year, and is a healthy 19th on the LPGA Tour money list, 2019 so far has not quite produced the stuff expected of a player widely considered to have the ability to be the woman to beat for years to come.
Ariya says her putting has not been up to scratch, and she continues to play without a driver, a club she can do without thanks to her prodigious power that allows her to smash a two-iron as far as many others can hit with their biggest club.
“The most important thing to make a putt, you need to have a good speed,” the 23-year-old Thai said on Tuesday, two days ahead of the first round at Country Club of Charleston.
“When I feel uncomfortable and don’t trust my stroke, it’s tough to have a good speed. So right now, I’m just working on my speed to get better.”
Her putting will be tested here on challenging greens that will expose any weaknesses, but at least she will not miss her driver off the tee, or so she thinks.
“Some holes I really have to hit like two-iron off the tee or three-iron because the fairway is pretty narrow and you don’t want to put yourself in the bunker,” she said.
Like many other classic old courses, the Country Club of Charleston, which opened in 1925, is too short to realistically host a men’s event, but at 6,535-yards, the par-71 is ideally suited for the women’s game.
If Ariya somehow finds herself on Sunday in a similar situation to last year, she vows to approach it differently.
At Shoal Creek in Alabama 12 months ago she had a seven-shot lead with nine holes left, only to triple-bogey the 10th hole and eventually fall into a playoff, where she made amends for her collapse by eclipsing South Korean Kim Hyo-joo.
Asked what she had been thinking at the time with her seven-shot lead, she said: “It should be easy for me to win the tournament, but that’s not a good way to think about that. I still have to… stick with my process.”
No prohibitive favorite sticks out this week but the mantle perhaps should belong to South Korean Ko Jin-young, winner of the first major of the year at the ANA Inspiration and the clear LPGA money leader.
Others to reckon with include Australian Minjee Lee, Canadian Brooke Henderson, American Nelly Korda and Japan’s Nasa Hataoka.
The winner will receive $1 million, the first seven-figure payout in women’s golf.
(Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by Ken Ferris)