SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Ariya Jutanugarn sank a gutsy par putt on the 72nd hole to become the first Thai to claim an LPGA Tour victory last weekend and after finally getting her maiden win after several near misses, the 20-year-old has set her sights firmly on Rio.
Big-hitting and renowned for her aggressive play, Ariya famously blew a two-shot lead on the final hole of her home Honda LPGA Thailand event in 2013 when a stunning triple-bogey eight handed Korea’s Park In-bee a one-shot triumph.
At last month’s ANA Inspiration, Ariya held a two-shot lead late in the final round of the season’s first major but three bogeys in a row from the 16th handed the title to world number one Lydia Ko as the Thai was left to rue another collapse.
At last week’s Yokohama Tire Classic, Ariya led by three strokes going into the final round after a sizzling 63 on Saturday and despite seeing her advantage dwindle to just one shot by the last, she was not about to be denied again.
“My legs were shaking, my hands were shaking,” Ariya told reporters after her nervy five-footer at the last in Alabama. “The last three holes were so tough. I couldn’t control anything.”
The victory took Ariya up to 21st in the world rankings and she is ready to mount an assault on Olympic gold alongside compatriot Pornanong Phatlum, herself a four-time runner up on the lucrative U.S.-based circuit.
“The Olympic gold is one of my goals this year,” Ariya, who was introduced to golf by her father Somboon at the age of five, told reporters in Thailand, where she was due to meet with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Friday.
“I will try my best to bring home the medal despite the fact that the course does not suit my game,” she added of the brand new layout built on a nature reserve to the west of Rio de Janeiro for the Aug. 17-20 tournament.
“On the tour, I am always trying to win every tournament and my target is to be among the top 10 by the end of the year,” Ariya, who followed in the footsteps of elder sister Moriya (world number 96) to play on the LPGA Tour, said.
“I have tried to change the way I approach the game this year. My caddie always tells me to believe in myself and love each shot that I play. It seems to have worked well.”
Proud of his daughters, Somboon is confident Ariya has the skills and temperament to climb all the way to the top as the nation begins to embrace women’s golf after the men had dominated the playing field for many years.
“I follow both of the girls and its great to see they are improving. With proper management, so much more success lies in wait for Ariya,” he said.
“It’s exciting that there are going to be a lot of good Thai players on the LPGA,” former Tour player Numa Gulyanamitta added. “Men’s golf is very popular in Thailand, but now that we have more women players, people will be cheering for both.”
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty