WILLIAMSBURG — More than 20 golfers requested a sponsor's invitation to this week's LPGA Kingsmill Championship. Ariya Jutanugarn's stood alone — for one reason.
"She's a world-class player," said Wayne Nooe, Kingsmill's director of golf.
No matter that she's only 17. No matter that her age precludes LPGA Tour membership. From tee to green, Jutanugarn is a natural.
And unlike many prodigies, her results match, and arguably exceed, her potential.
Jutanugarn's talent was evident from the moment she began play at 9:21 a.m. Thursday. She birdied the first three holes and six of the first seven en route to an opening-round of 7-under-par 64, two shots clear of the field.
Not even a double-bogey at the par-3 17th fazed Jutanugarn. She rocketed another drive at 18, nestled a 50-degree wedge tight to the pin and made the birdie putt.
A native of Thailand, Jutanugarn struggles with English. But her summary of the round was as accurate as it was brief.
"Today, I'm playing really good," she said.
As she has throughout a remarkable 2013 in which she has eclipsed her older sister.
No small feat there. Moriya Jutanugarn, 18, leads the LPGA rookie of the year standings thanks to five top-30 finishes in eight tournaments.
But Ariya is excelling on not only the LPGA Tour but also the Ladies European Tour.
Both circuits have age minimums of 18, but only the LET approved Ariya's petition for a waiver. She has taken full advantage.
Ariya won the LET's 2012 qualifying school and leads the 2013 Order of Merit, the Euros' ostentatious synonym for money list. She earned her first professional victory at the LET tournament in Morocco and tied for second at the event in Australia.
Meanwhile, through sponsor's invitations and Monday qualifiers, Ariya competed in three LPGA tournaments prior to Kingsmill, finishing second, third and fourth and earning $328,643.
Were she a member, Ariya would be No. 8 on the Tour's money list.
(Ariya is one of Kingsmill's two sponsor's invites. The other, former South Carolina All-American Katie Burnett, shot 3-under 68 Thursday.)
Ariya is "going to be a great addition to our Tour when she … gets her (playing) card full-time," said Cristie Kerr, a two-time Kingsmill champion after her Thursday 66. "She hits it really long, and she just kind of aims at the pin and fires it there."
That care-free approach cost Ariya at the LPGA Thailand in February. She led Inbee Park by two strokes approaching the final hole, only to get too aggressive, draw an unlucky embedded lie in a bunker and make triple-bogey.
"It was really hard," Ariya said of coping with the meltdown, "because even if I just make bogey, I'm going to win. But it's very good experience. I'll never forget it. … It's made me a stronger golfer."
Indeed, the very next week Ariya finished fourth at the LPGA tournament in Singapore.