How the mental recovery of the year propelled Ariya Jutanugarn's win in the LPGA season finale

November 21, 2017

Tim Bradbury

Ariya Jutanugarn was playing in the last group at the CME Group Tour Championship last Sunday, one of four players tied for the 54-hole lead. The 21-year-old from Thailand had risen to No. 1 in the Rolex Rankings earlier in 2017, but then struggled, missing five cuts in one eight-tournament stretch and finishing inside the top-20 in just one of her last eight starts prior to the LPGA season finale. Finally back on a leader board, Jutanugarn pulled out a 2-iron on the first tee to begin the final round at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Fla.—only to proceed to chunk her tee shot. Like, hit several inches behind the ball, almost missed it, chunked it. A real, true chunk that barely got past the front-most tee box and dribbled off into the junk on the left side. The 2016 LPGA Player of the Year looked surprised for a second, but then just handed her club to her caddie, walked to her ball, punched out, made bogey, shot 67 and won the tournament by a stroke over Lexi Thompson and Jessica Korda.

If you’re a mere mortal, like us, that chunked tee ball is hanging with you throughout the whole round. You’re standing over every shot, hoping, praying that you don’t chunk it. You play the chunk over and over again in your head, trying to convince yourself that you don't suck and shouldn’t quit golf right then and there.

But not Jutanugarn.

She put the shot out of her mind so quickly and so completely, that she didn’t even remember the shot had happened until some nosey journalist asked her about it in the press conference after her round. (My bad. Sorry I brought it up, Ariya.)

“My I caddie was helping me a lot,” Jutanugarn said. “After that shot he’s like, 'Come on. It’s OK. We just going to go out, have fun, and do every shot like the best you can do.’ That was helping me a lot. Honestly, I forgot already until you said that.”

That response is a mental coach’s dream. And it comes from a lot of hard work by Jutanugarn. To try to get her game back on track after her struggles in the middle of the season, she has been working with Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott at Vision 54. Her focus has been on being more positive and process-oriented on the course, in an attempt at letting go of her attachment to her results.

“That was my new goal,” says Jutanugarn. “I'm like, OK, I’m just going to go out and have fun and stay with myself and enjoy myself. Just whatever I can do, I’m just going to accept it and just go have fun.”

Nilsson and Marriott are proud of the progress Jutanugarn has made.

“Ariya knows to be more objective/neutral on bad shots and then close the door on it,” Nilsson told Golf World. “She did it in the final round, and then her caddie supported her with it as well, to keep her focus on the present and future of the round. Great/good/good enough shots you want to emotionalize, so the brain stores it as a memory.”

It’s a skill Nilsson says golfers of every level can benefit from. She says you have to manage how you think about the shot that just happened, because whatever your reaction is will determine how your brain is going to store the shot as a memory. If you’re upset after each shot, you’re going to be carrying those negative memories with you throughout the round. Instead, Nilsson says to be neutral after the bad ones, and be positive after the good ones.

Jutanugarn is also a perfect example of how to decide if a shot is good or bad. The process of the shot itself, the swing that you put on it, is more important than the shot’s outcome. The way she talks about the downhill, breaking 18-foot birdie putt that she made on the 18th hole to win demonstrates this mentality.

“I really happy about that,” says Jutanugarn of the putt. “Not because I made the putt, but I know I hit a good putt.”