17-year-old leads LPGA event

The SportsXchange

JAMES CITY, Va. -- At age 17, Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand is too young to be a member of the LPGA. However, Thursday in the opening round of the Kingsmill Championship, Jutanugarn showed she has the game, if not the birthdate.

Firing a 7-under-par 64 at Kingsmill's River Course, Jutanugarn took a two-stroke lead over Cristie Kerr (66), the only two-time champion in the history of the event. In contention at 67 are Dewi Claire Schreefel of the Netherlands and 2011 U.S. Women's Open champion So Yeon Ryu of South Korea.

Jutanugarn, who will turn 18 on Nov. 23, is attempting to become the third underage player in as many years to win an LPGA event, following victories by 15-yer-old Lydia Ko last year and 16-year-old Lexi Thompson in 2011.

On a day of gentle breezes and temperatures in the upper 60s, it could have been a bigger lead for the long-hitting Jutanugarn. But on Kingsmill's signature 17th hole, a par 3 that plays along the James River, she made a double bogey, leaving a delicate downhill chip shot on the fringe and missing a 5-footer for bogey.

Jutanugarn regrouped with a 10-foot birdie putt at No. 18. Before her glitch, Jutanugarn had a chance to match the course record of 62, established in the first round last year by winner Jiyai Shin.

Pounding towering drives long and straight and firing short irons at pins, Jutanugarn birdied six of the first seven holes. When the round was over, she had hit 12 of 14 fairways and needed only 24 putts. Her irons were so accurate that most of her birdie putts were inside 10 feet.

"Today I'm playing very good. My putting helped me a lot," Jutanugarn said. "I made a lot of short putts. I only made like one long putt (a 15-footer)."

It was Jutanugarn's first competitive round at Kingsmill, though she has been in town for a while after coming up a stroke shy in Monday qualifying last week in the North Texas LPGA Shootout. It was a relief not having to qualify Monday at the River Course.

"I want to thank the sponsor," Jutanugarn said. "Very good experience. Thank you."

Jutanugarn's work didn't come from out of the blue. Though not a member of the tour, she has been in the lead in three LPGA events this year. Two weeks ago in Hawaii, she shot an opening-round 64 on her way to third place. In February in Thailand, Jutanugarn had a two-stroke advantage on the final hole but made a triple bogey, taking a drop and missing a three-foot putt to force a playoff, handing the title to Inbee Park.

"It was really hard because even (if I) just make bogey, I'm going to win," Jutanugarn said. "Really good experience, it makes me be stronger golfer."

Jutanugarn, who won the 2011 U.S. Girls Junior and lost to Ko in the semifinals of the 2012 U.S. Women's Amateur, petitioned for a chance to play in the LPGA Qualifying tournament last fall. She was denied, leaving it to her 18-year-old sister, Moriya, to tie for medalist honors and earn a spot on the tour.

This year as the 5-foot-2 Moriya plays on the LPGA, the 5-foot-4 Ariya is splitting time between the LPGA and the Ladies European Tour. Though not a member, she can play in LPGA events via sponsors' exemption or through Monday qualifying.

Playing five groups ahead of her sister on Thursday, Moriya Jutanugarn shot a 73. Her best showing this year was a tie for fourth in the Australian Open.

"Before I play like every tournament, we try to beat each other all the time," Ariya Jutanugarn said. "She helps like after the round. I tell her what I miss, what I do wrong, she (tries) to help me like every time."

On Thursday, the players had to deal with the wind on and off, according to Kerr.

"(The wind) was really strong when we first started, and then, you know, kind of toward the tail end of the front nine, it seemed to die down a little and then picked back up, so it was kind of coming and going all day," Kerr said. "What was good was the wind direction was fairly consistent. Sometimes on the fourth and fifth hole it can really swirl around and it can be hard to tell what it's doing. It stayed pretty consistent out there as far as one direction so that was at least a good thing."

Ryu began with four birdies in her first nine holes, but she parred each of her final nine holes.

"Yeah, that one is really tough one because before I started, teed off, I didn't expect a really low score, then I just focus on each hole," Ryu said. "Then I think the 4 under on the front nine that, oh, maybe I can hit the low score like 8 under, 9 under, then I expect birdie, birdie, birdie, and my body's getting tight and my mind wasn't there, so it's really hard to finish a great front nine and then turn on the back nine."

NOTES: There are 14 players log-jammed at 68, including the world's top three, No. 1-ranked Park of South Korea, No. 2 Stacy Lewis of the United States, and No. 3 Suzann Pettersen of Norway ... Also at 68 is the tournament's other player who received a sponsors' exemption, Katie Burnett, a former All-American at South Carolina ... Ariya Jutanugarn's first victory as a pro came five weeks ago in the Ladies European Tour's Lalla Meryem Cup in Morocco. Jutanugarn leads the LET in earnings.
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