The Thai professional golfer has returned to action and intends to make a comeback to the top of the rankings while setting her sights on Tokyo 2020
In 2007, Thai golf star Ariya Jutanugarn made her professional debut at 11-years-old and was the youngest-ever player to compete in an LPGA tournament. Starting out as a child prodigy, Jutanugarn has grown to become one of the best professional players in the world, climbing to the top of the rankings over the years.
By 2016, nobody could deny that she was a force to be reckoned with as she cemented her status in the sport as world no 2.
But there's more. That same year, the then 20-year-old athlete made history again by winning her fourth tournament at the Women's British Open, making her the first Thai player in history (men or women) to win a major championship.
"I honestly never thought I would be the first Thailand player to win a major [championship] but in itself it does not matter to me as so many Thai players before me showed that we could compete internationally. Since I won other tournaments previously it was always an ambition to win a major."
2016 Getty Images
By the time she landed in Rio for the Olympic Games - when golf made its return to the Olympic programme after 102 years - expectations were truly high for Jutanugarn to earn a medal.
However, fate would dash her Olympic hopes.
In the third round of the women's Olympic golf tournament, Jutanugarn had to withdraw after a left knee injury - a decision that still leaves her with a mix of emotions.
"It was really disappointing especially after leading through the first round but I had to take the decision to withdraw for the long term without causing more damage to my left knee," Jutanugarn said.
But the young Jutanugarn was a fighter at heart. Just a week after Rio, she returned to the fold - without any indication of injury - and stole the spotlight again by winning the Canadian Women's Open - her fifth tournament of the year.
While known for her powerful ball strikes and aggressive playing, it's truly her resilience and perseverance that define Jutanugarn as a golfer.
By 2017 June, she became world no. 1 - the third youngest player male or female to reach that level and the first Thai in history. She capped off 2018 by capturing every major season-ending award in LPGA history, and wrapped the year up with her Player of the Year award and also topped the prize money-earner list.
Shaping a world-class athlete
Jutanugarn's rise to the pinnacle of the sport was not accidental. Her family life revolved around golf.
"My dad opened a golf equipment shop when I was very young. Given that I was a real live wire and couldn’t sit still, dad did not want me running around so he gave me a putter."
"I really enjoyed it as a kid without knowing much about the sport, but my dad noticed that I was able to play and that’s why he started training and teaching me properly."
Ariya and her sister Moriya started joining amateur competitions. When their parents saw their potential, they made a giant leap of sacrifice to ensure the sisters' future success as professional golfers.
"There is no prize money in amateur golf. My family was middle class, not rich at all. When it came to meeting the costs to allow me travel to compete in tournaments, mom and dad sold their own cars and house so I could afford to play. At one point we barely had any money left," Jutanugarn recalled.
This led Jutanugarn to be more determined to become a professional athlete.
"I wanted to qualify for the LPGA as I could see I could make money through golf and take care of my loved ones."
That is why Jutanugarn is relentless with her ambition:
My goal was always clear that I wanted to be the best golfer I could be and to take good care of my family. That’s all I ever wanted to achieve so I never felt that I sacrificed anything to pursue my career in golf.
Aside from pursuing a career in golf, the 24-year-old and her sister Moriya - who is 49 in the world golf rankings - also run a foundation to help Thai families.
"We have achieved another goal by establishing a foundation to support kids and people in need."
In 2018, the sisters partnered with the Habitat for Humanity project and completed their first project of building a home for a family in Thailand. It is something Jutanugarn counts as part of her success.
And Jutanugarn continues to be an inspiration for young Thais.
"Golf is becoming more popular in Thailand and it is great to see a lot of boys and girls taking up the game. If I can help that in any small way then that is great but it is not just about golf...it is showing kids to strive to be their best at anything they want to do."
A challenging year
Looking back at the time she was world no.1, Jutanugarn understands the impact it had beyond sport.
"My focus had always been to do the best I can in any tournament and becoming number one was a nice bonus. What I would say is it made my voice stronger and more credible which helps as a mouthpiece for young generations supporting wider groups of people in need."
Sitting atop the world rankings, Jutanugarn's place in golf looked secure. But a winless 2019 saw her ranking dip at the end of the season but she still made 27 cuts in 28 tournaments with 10 top 10 finishes.
Currently at no. 17, Jutanugarn knows how hard it is to maintain a top-ranked status especially in a sport as complex as golf.
"It wasn’t easy after the success in 2018 but the experiences I have had in my journey allows me to deal with adversity better. It can be frustrating when you feel you are doing the same work and repeating the processes but can’t win...that is golf...we just have to keep working harder and smarter."
Return to action
After competing in the early 2020 season events in Florida, Jutanugarn was able to return to action after the pandemic break in the Scottish Open and Women's Open - the first LPGA major championship of 2020.
"Even though it was a six-month break, the positive was plenty of time for physical preparation and to concentrate on improving my game."
"I was a little concerned about travelling with the pandemic and one of the reasons I delayed starting back until Scotland. The LPGA has done a great job with clear and strict health measures to safeguard all players and caddies which we all have to respect."
And for Jutanugarn, her focus is on future results and performance and not rankings.
"The rankings are not the motivation for me. I want to work hard on my fitness and game so I give my best in every tournament. Good results come from hard work and dedication."
"I accept that we may be judged by our rankings but that is not a concern to me provided I’m still happy whether I am playing in a tournament or just practising with my caddie."
Jutanugarn is as passionate about golf as she was when started picking up her golf club at a very young age.
"If I was asked whether I love golf or not, my answer is I love the results that golf has created and it continues to drive me to work hard."
2016 Getty Images
A second chance at Tokyo 2020
Despite all the success on the LPGA and other major golf tournaments, Jutanugarn still dreams of finishing where she left off at Rio 2016.
"Hopefully I will have the opportunity to compete in another Olympics – it was a privilege to be a part of it in Rio and to represent my country."
And Olympics or not, she will treat it as any other competition just like she does in every championship she takes part in.
"My aim is to do my best in every tournament and the results will be a product of the work I put."
"My preparation will be no different from my normal approach to the game – strengthening my body, regular practice both physically and mentally and of course, and I will try to do my best for Thailand."
And for Jutanugarn, having another chance at Tokyo 2020 is something she personally holds of high importance as an athlete.
"I believe that as athletes no matter which sport, being part of the Olympics is one of their dreams and one of the reasons why we all work so hard in our respective sports."
"What I would like to accomplish will be similar to other athletes, winning a medal, enhancing our country’s reputation and importantly bringing joy to the fans in Thailand."