Thai golfer Ariya named LPGA Player of the Year

ariya2fbOften described as a golfer’s paradise, Thailand has produced its first homegrown elite global golfer as the Ladies Professional Golf Association named Ariya Jutanugarn its Player of the Year for 2016 last week after a breakthrough season in which she won five tournaments on the LPGA tour.

The 21-year-old Thai sensation edged out women’s World Number 1 Lydia Ko who won four tournaments this year. Ariya, who has over $3 million in career earnings after turning professional in 2012, has set her sights on capturing the top spot in the world rankings as her next goal.

“I never expected like that much,” Ariya said upon learning she had won the award, and was also the top earner this year on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. “I just really wanted to win my first tournament this year.”

Ariya’s breakthrough season started slowly and with disappointment. After leading in the early rounds, she suffered a late collapse at the ANA Inspiration tournament in March. But after that, she won five of the next ten tournaments in which she competed including the Women’s British Open.

Her opponents “haven’t been able to stop her during a torrid four-month stretch in which she’s won five of her past 10 starts, including her first major title at the Ricoh Women’s British Open last month,’’ wrote Golf Digest magazine.

“The powerful player, who rarely hits driver, also has a runner-up and a third-place finish in that time frame,” the magazine added.

Ariya’s playing style has been described as “fearless.” She averaged 264 yards off the tee, hit more than 72 percent of her greens, was third in putting and led the tour in birdies. “Like Rory McIlroy on the men’s tour, she has more horsepower than many of her closest competitors,” wrote the Golf Week website.

Ariya, and her older sister and fellow golf professional Moriya, grew up around the game – their father owned a pro shop at the Rose Garden golf course just outside of Bangkok.

As an amateur, she qualified for the 2007 Honda LPGA Thailand tournament at the age of 11, making her the youngest player ever to qualify for an LPGA tournament.  After turning pro, she focused first on the European Tour, where she had five top-four finishes. She won her first professional tournament in 2013 in Morocco at the Lalla Meryem Cup on the European tour.

“Jutanugarn is now No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings, trailing only Lydia Ko, who has four victories this season,” wrote Golf Digest. “Keep winning at a 50-percent clip, though, and things won’t stay that way for long.”