Golf

A woman for all golf seasons

World No. 1 Ariya is extraordinary, charming, hilarious - and the player all rivals look up to on the leaderboard

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.

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

Last year, she swept most of the 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$2,667,983 (S$3.6 million).

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

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

"It's really important. 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.

"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 in 2017 to help children and families in need 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 humans and we make mistakes.

"I don't feel the burden of being No. 1 any more because I know what I'm doing. I know what I want to focus on and it's not about the rankings."

As she admitted herself, 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 wasn't talking candidly about her game, the easygoing Thai was telling fun stories about herself and Moriya.

The sisters will share a room again this week and, while the world No.1 has a tidy game, she can't 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 at the first tee, she talked to me, so I talk to her."

Family comes first and the only things she splurged on from her $3.6m earnings last year was 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 bubbly personalities as ambassadors of the Tour.

He added: "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, when everybody wants to know where they are and 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...

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

Golf