U.S. Girls Junior: Thailand Golfer Is Medalist, Champion

OLYMPIA FIELDS, IL. — Ariya Jutanugarn was the easily the medalist at the 63rd U.S. Junior Girls Championship at Olympia Fields, but she was leery about getting into a match play situation with the title on the line.

“I don’t like match play, because you don’t know when you’re going to lose,” the 15-year old from Bangkok, Thailand, said.

This wasn’t her first time as a medalist, either. She also led stroke play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, but wasn’t as good in a match play situation there.

As it turned out, during a week dominated by sweltering temperatures, Jutanugarn had little to worry about. She emerged as only the 16th medalist in the tourney’s 63 stagings to claim a victory, and it was her first U.S. Golf Assn. title.

The heat — temperatures in the 90s — was an ongoing concern, but Jutanugarn was a cool customer throughout. She dominated the stroke play on Olympia’s par-72 South course, which was set up at 6,403 yards. Opening with a 68, she posted a 4-under 140 for her 36 holes — four strokes better than closest challenger Casie Cathrea of Livermore, Calif.

Then it was on to match play for the 64 survivors. Marissa Chow, of Honolulu, was Jutanugarn’s first match play opponent and won the first hole. That was just a wakeup call. Making six birdies in a nine-hole stretch, Jutanugarn eliminated Chow 6 and 4.

En route to a battle with Dottie Ardina of the Philippines in the final Jutanugarn eliminated Sarah Schmelzel of Phoenix 4 and 3 in the second round, Gabriella Then of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., 1-up in the quarterfinals and — in the most onesided match of the week — 14-year old Amy Lee of Brea, Calif., 8 and 6 in the semifinals. Ardina, 17, had a much tougher semifinal before ousting China’s Yu Liu 2-up.

The 36-hole battle for the title was a nailbiter throughout. Neither player was better than 1-up until Jutanugarn rolled in a two-foot birdie putt on the 31st hole to go 2-up. Though she lost the 33rd hole to go back to 1-up, the end wasn’t far off. On the 35th hole Ardina three-putted, missing a three-footer for par, and Jutanugarn closed out the match with a four-footer for par and a 2 and 1 victory.

“I’m disappointed because my putting dropped me down,” Ardina said. She hit 34 of 35 fairways and missed only three greens in the title match.

When the week started the logical favorite was Katelyn Dambaugh, runner-up to Doris Chen in 2010. A high school junior from Goose Creek, S.C., who has already picked her college — the University of South Carolina, Dambaugh wasn’t fazed by the weather — “it’s a little hotter at home than this — and was much more comfortable with match play than Jutanugarn. Plus, Dambaugh had the experience of the previous year’s run to the title match.

“It gave me a lot more confidence in myself. I had never been in a situation like that, and it was awesome,” Dambaugh said. She didn’t get beyond second round this time, losing 3 and 1 to Keel. Another former U.S. Junior Girls runner-up, Karen Chung (2008), made it to the quarterfinals before falling 6 and 5 to Liu.

Neither Jutanugarn nor Dambaugh expected the heat to be a factor early in the week. Jutanugarn felt it was hotter in her native Thailand. Jutanugarn couldn’t get distracted anyway. Her sister Moriya, who served as her caddie only because a wrist injury forced her withdrawal from the tournament, kept her focused.

The sisters didn’t always get along, either. After accepting the winner’s trophy Ariya thanked her parents Somboon and Narumon as well as her sister.

“She’s so nice. She tells me, if she played in this tournament, she was going to beat me,” Ariya said.

The Jutanugarns are no strangers to the U.S. They started spending summers in the U.S. in 2004 when the parents brought both girls came to a tournament in San Diego. This summer the girls were entered in 12 tournaments before returning to Thailand. The week before the Junior Girls both were in the U.S. Women’s Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Ariya, who had won the American Junior Golf Association’s Rolex Girls Junior earlier in the summer, was one of five members of the Junior Girls’ field who competed at The Broadmoor.

The Junior Girls, the 58th USGA championship staged in the Chicago area, had been held in the area only once previously — in 1951 at Onwentsia. That year the event had only 32 entries. This year’s drew 1,084 that included players from 35 states and nine countries.