Rancho Mirage, Calif. (AP) — Lydia Ko remembers holding her arms above her head in a heart shape when she leaped into Poppie’s Pond last year. The New Zealand teenager had to watch the video to learn she also held her nose for the winner’s traditional plunge at the ANA Inspiration.
“I might be one of the only players to hold my nose,” the world No. 1 said with a grin. “I must have been scared of the water going up my nose.”
Ariya Jutanugarn didn’t get to make that leap because she blew a two-stroke lead with bogeys on the final three holes of the Dinah Shore Course last year.
Yet that major disappointment propelled Jutanugarn to where she sits now: Right behind Ko in the overall rankings, with a chance to rise at Mission Hills Country Club this weekend.
“I think I’m really lucky that last year (happened),” Jutanugarn said, recalling the thoughts that ran through her head. “‘I’m never going to win my first tournament. I’m never going to win my first major.’ I feel really happy that happened last year. After that tournament, I just said ‘OK, just go have fun.'”
Jutanugarn might be having a bit more fun than Ko lately, but the top two players in the world are leading a packed field that included 10 former champions at the ANA Inspiration. They’re competing for the $2.7 million purse at the first major of the year in the desert just outside Palm Springs.
Ko became the youngest player to win two majors when she took the trophy here last year with a birdie on the 72nd hole, while Jutanugarn remained winless on the LPGA Tour with her collapse.
So much has changed for both young pros since that fateful Sunday.
Jutanugarn has won a whopping five events since, including the British Open. With a newfound confidence and a steady demeanor, she has been ranked No. 2 in the world for 34 straight weeks.
Ko has been consistently solid, but she hasn’t dominated the tour — and she shockingly missed a cut last week at Carlsbad for only the second time in 95 LPGA starts.
Ko has been No. 1 in the world for 75 weeks, but Jutanugarn’s 21st-place finish in Carlsbad allowed the big-hitting Thai pro to close the gap to the smallest it has ever been.
“It’s not important, because when I play, I really want to have fun,” Jutanugarn said of the No. 1 ranking. “I really want to be happy on the course. And whatever happens, be really happy and have fun. That’s my goal.”
While Jutanugarn appears to be gathering momentum, Ko is returning to Mission Hills in search of the form that cleared her for takeoff into the pond last spring.
After an unimpressive finish to 2016, Ko struggled with a sketchy putter in Carlsbad last week, leading to back-to-back bogeys on her final two holes.
The missed cut was the low point of a year filled with change for Ko, who acquired a new coach, a new caddie and new clubs after last year’s late disappointments. Jason Hamilton, the caddie who correctly advised her to lay up on the final hole and then belly-flopped into Poppie’s Pond with her last year, has been replaced by Gary Matthews.
Things aren’t exactly terrible for Ko, however: She had three top-10 finishes in her first four tournaments before struggling in Carlsbad.
To join Annika Sorenstam as the only repeat champion at this major, Ko must recapture the steady shot-making form that allowed her to come from behind last year.
“I think the biggest thing I remember about that whole day was that I really wasn’t focusing on what anybody else was doing,” Ko said. “I was just trying to play the best I can. And it really did come to the last hole, and I think that’s why it was so exciting.”
DIVOTS: Michelle Wie will play with 14-year-old Lucy Li in the first two rounds. Li, the Bay Area product who qualified for the U.S. Open at 11, made the current field by winning the ANA Junior Inspiration. Wie, now 27, also played this tournament at 14, and finished tied for fourth. … Jutanugarn plays with Cristie Kerr, while Ko will start off with two-time tournament winner Brittany Lincicome.