WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Ariya Jutanugarn was in attack mode all day at the Kingsmill Championship — and it paid off.
The 17-year-old Thai player birdied six of the first seven holes Thursday and was 8 under after 14 holes thanks to a radar-like short iron game that left her with short putt after short putt.
“Today, I made a lot of shots,” she said.
She only missed a few, all on the par-3 17th when she pulled her tee shot to the left, chunked her downhill approach short of the green, putted from the fringe well past the hole and missed the comebacker.
The double bogey took her out of contention for tying the course record of 62, but she rebounded nicely with a birdie at the finishing hole, capping a round with nine birdies and the double bogey.
On a day when the course remained wet from rain earlier in the week, the players were allowed to lift, clean and place their balls, and the scores reflected it with 56 players finishing below par.
Cristie Kerr, the only two-time winner in the tour’s eight previous visits to the River Course, had six birdies and one bogey and was alone in second after a 66. So Yeon Ryu and Dewi Claire Schreefel shot 67, and top-ranked Inbee Park, coming off a victory last weekend, second-ranked Stacy Lewis and former winner Suzann Pettersen were among 14 at 68.
For Jutanugarn, who said she was hitting the ball so close all day that the longest putt she had to make was from about 15 feet, bouncing back seems to be fast becoming part of her golf education.
Earlier this season, Jutanugarn took a two-shot lead into the final hole at the LPGA Thailand, and her aggressive style burned her. She went for the par-5 green in two and hit her second shot into a bunker, where it was embedded and she had to take a drop. She then overshot the green and finished with a three-putt triple bogey to lose by a shot.
“Very good experience. I never forget it,” she said. “It make me be stronger golfer.”
The following week, she finished fourth in the HSBC Women’s Championship in Singapore, and less than a month later, won for the first time on the Ladies European Tour in the Lalla Meryem Cup in Morocco.
That victory has her atop to money list on the LET, and even though she doesn’t qualify for the LPGA money list, her worst finish in three events is fourth and her earnings of $328,643 would rank eighth.
The Thailand experience also took any butterflies she might have felt away.
“I don’t have any nerve any more,” she said.
The beneficiary of that collapse, Inbee Park, used the victory to help climb to the No. 1 ranking, and Park said Thursday that Jutanagarn will have a big advantage this week because she’s a big hitter.
“She’s a very talented player and I’m very happy that she’s playing really good, especially after that finish on No. 18,” Park said. “It’s always good to see somebody bouncing back like that.”
Park, who has three victories already this year, including last week in Texas, skipped this event last year and has never fared well in three previous tries, missing two cuts and tying for 16th.
That was essentially a different player, she said.
“My game changed a lot,” said Park, in her fourth week at No. 1. “The way I’m hitting the ball, the way I’m putting is totally different than what I’ve been doing four, five years ago.”
Not a long hitter, she struggled in the cold, windy morning before things settled down.
“On the back nine, everything just turned around and I started to hit the ball a lot better,” she said.
The reverse was true for Ryu, who made the turn at 4 under and finished with nine consecutive pars.
“I think (after) the 4 under on the front nine that, maybe, I can hit the low score like 8 under, 9 under,” she said. “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 great front nine and then turn on the back nine.”
Schreefel’s round was steady throughout and included a rarity — three 2s on her scorecard.
“I like par 3s,” said Schreefel, who finished 13th here last year. “Greens in regulation is one of my stronger points, so I tend to kind of attack the pins there if I think the situation is suitable.”
He birdie putts on the par 3s came from 25, 12 and 7 feet, she said, and she also really attacked the pin at the par-5 7th, chipping in from about 15 yards for a birdie.
“I seem to like that hole because last year I made two eagles there,” Schreefel said.
Among notables who struggled, defending champion Jiyai Shin shot a 70, eight strokes behind her course-record start last year, Paula Creamer finished at 2 under and Michelle Wie had a 1-over 72.
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