During a season that’s had 25 different winners, picking a standout LPGA golfer in 2018 would seem to be a challenge. Yet on the eve of the tour's season finale, Ariya Jutanugarn has already clinched most of the tour's biggest prizes: Player of the Year, the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award, the official money list and the newly created Leaders Top 10 competition (with 16 top-10 finishes). She’s the No. 1 player in the world and won three times in 2018. By most any measure, she is the best player on the LPGA Tour right now. And at the CME Group Tour Championship, where she's the defending champion, the 22-year-old from Thailand is the clear front runner not only to win the final tournament but also the $1,000,000 bonus for being the CME points leader for the season.
As the points stand before the beginning of the event, Jutanugarn sits atop the leader board with 5,000. A win this week and everything is hers. Still, there are 11 other players who mathematically have a chance to walk away with the million bucks, which will literally be sitting in a box for the winner on the 18th green Sunday at Tiburon Golf Course in Naples, Fla.
Accordingly to the LPGA, of those players, four of them would win it with a victory at the tour championship. They are, Minjee Lee, Brooke Henderson, Nasa Hataoka and Sung Hyun Park.
After that, it starts to get more complicated. Sei Young Kim has to finish sixth or better to potentially win the cash. Jin Young Ko, who has clinched the Rookie of the Year honors earlier this month, has to finish fourth or better. So Yeon Ryu has to finish third or better.
As for the remaining four players who have a chance to win the bonus—Moriya Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko, Marina Alex and Carlota Ciganda—it's even more complex. They not only have to win the tour championship, but then must relies on the finishes of those players ahead of them on the list.
The player in that group with the best chance would be Moriya Jutanugarn, who would need to win and have her sister finish ninth or worse. Moriya then needs Minjee Lee to end up eighth or worse, Brooke Henderson to come in at seventh or worse, Nasa Hataoka sixth or worse, Sung Hyun Park finish fifth or worse and Sei Young Kim to finish third or worse. See? Complicated.
Unfortunately for the rest of the field, after Ariya’s pre-tournament press conference, it sounds like she is prepared for the season’s final moment.
Jutanugarn has been open about how much she doesn’t like to play under pressure. In her work with performance gurus Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, she’s been learning how to handle it by dissociating herself from the outcome.
“I know when I‘m nervous, when I‘m scared, I worry because I think about the outcome, because I want to play well,” Jutanugarn explained. “I want to hit this shot good because I care about other people, what they're going to be thinking about me. But then I have to come back to myself and know that other people's expectation is not my expectation. I have to know what is my expectation, because I expect to have a good commitment with every shot. I expect myself to have fun, enjoy and feel free on the course.”
This mantra of being committed over each shot, of focusing on the joy of playing golf, has been consistent throughout the year. She spoke frequently about it at the U.S. Women’s Open, one of Jutanugarn’s three victories in 2018, where she lost a seven-shot lead and still came back to win the title in a playoff.
“After you have like a seven-shot lead and end up with you having to go to playoff, I had no expectations,” Jutanugarn said after the win. Her ability to exercise what she’s learned from Nilsson and Marriott will make her all the more difficult to beat in the pursuit of the $1,000,000 bonus at the end of the weekend.
There was one other lesson Jutanugarn learned from that U.S. Women’s Open that will make her tough to beat, too.
“That day help me a lot,” she said of that Sunday. “It's make me feel like I don't have to play well to be able to win a tournament….”