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Ben Smith

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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Moriya Jutanugarn putts on the 18th hole at the Junior PGA Championship..

Sisters stay on course at Juniors

– Golf courses do not dream, of course, so there’s your break for this day, Sycamore Hills. No nightmares about Those Girls From Thailand for you.

Their names are Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn, and they’re from Bangkok, and the first time I saw the former Wednesday morning, she was on the driving range, sending golf balls into orbit like tiny John Glenns. Tee the ball as low to the chewed grass as possible, take that sledgehammer of a driver back in a precise and murderous arc, stripe the ball into the wild blue yonder. Repeat.

“Just one time, I’d like to hit driver like that,” I said to the guy standing next to me, as another ball sailed out toward some other zip code. “One time.”

He chuckled and shook his head. It’s how they leave you, these two.

Ariya, of course, strip-mined Sycamore Hills a year ago in this Junior PGA Championship, shooting a women’s course-record 66 en route to a 273 72-hole total and a 10-stroke win. It was the same lead she had after 54 holes, in which she tied the Junior PGA record with a 203.

Then she dropped another 66 on the field Tuesday to open play this time around, and followed that with a 2-under 70 Wednesday to reach the halfway point of the tournament at 8-under, two strokes clear of the field. Older sister Moriya, meanwhile, opened 69-72 Tuesday and Wednesday, and is tied for fifth at 3-under.

Here’s the scary thing, however: Neither probably thinks she’s playing well.

“She’s a great player and she always keeps her head on straight,” says Casey Danielson, a solid player herself who’s at 3-under after 36 holes, five strokes off the lead. “You know, you play with her, and she doesn’t think she played that well, and you know yourself that it wasn’t her best. And still she shoots under par.

“Even her bad shots are still good, and she can get up and down from anywhere. She makes a lot of putts from 10 feet now, and I think that’s really important.”

You could see that Wednesday morning, when Ariya’s putter saved her early.

She got it up and down from the fringe on the first three holes, and after that, off she was off again.

“My putter is really my key,” she said, noting, sure enough, that she missed some short putts in Tuesday’s round.

Then she said she’s been playing golf since she was 5 years old, and came to the game as naturally as you might assume.

“My dad taught me,” she says. “We have a golf shop in Thailand.”

And so last year, when she was just 15, Ariya made everyone’s radar when she made the cut and tied for 25th at the first women’s major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Then she won the U.S. Girls Juniors and Rolex Girls’ Juniors in addition to the Junior PGA, and qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open.

On to Wednesday morning and the par-5 12th, a 510-yard dogleg with a lake on one side of the fairway, a pond waiting to drown your ball if you go right and a creek guarding the green. Driver, iron, life raft is how most people play it.

But Ariya – as well as her Wednesday playing partners, Casie Cathrea and Alison Lee – isn’t most players. So she striped her tee shot to the middle of the fairway, dropped her approach on the fringe, ran the putt up close and dunked the gimme. Tap-in par.

Back up the fairway a bit, a PGA official took all this in.

“Wouldn’t you like to play like that just one time?” he asked.

And then, of course, he chuckled and shook his head.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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