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Teenager Ariya Jutanugarn has a dream of a day at Kingsmill Championship

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Sports,Golf,Kevin Dunleavy

17-year-old jumps out to early lead

JAMES CITY, Va. -- Bent at the waist, with a long, graceful swing of her arm, Ariya Jutanugarn snatched her tee out of the ground and flicked it away in disgust. She had just pounded her drive deep down the 18th fairway in the opening round of the Kingsmill Championship.

It was her lone show of emotion and came following her only mistake in an otherwise-immaculate 7-under-par round of 64.

Jutanugarn, a 17-year-old from Thailand, was perturbed because of a double-bogey she had made on the previous hole. At Kingsmill's iconic par-three 17th, running along the rushing waters of the James River, she pulled her 8-iron onto a hillside overlooking the green and then left her downhill chip shot on the fringe.

But Jutanugarn was quick to forget her mistake. Her 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole gave her a two-stroke lead over two-time Kingsmill champion Cristie Kerr.

The play of Jutanugarn, who is in the tournament on a sponsor's exemption, was the story of the day, though hardly a shock. Two weeks ago in Hawaii as a Monday qualifier, Jutanugarn shot an opening-round 64 to take the lead in the LPGA Lotte Championship, where she eventually finished third. In February at the LPGA Thailand, Jutanugarn had a two-stroke lead on the final hole but made a triple bogey, missing a three-foot putt that could have forced a playoff and handing the title to Inbee Park of South Korea.

She left the green in tears, but Jutanugarn said the experience was character building.

"After LPGA Thailand, I don't have like any nerves anymore, no [excitement], just like do my best and enjoy the game," Jutanugarn said. "It made me be stronger."

Jutanugarn, who won't turn 18 until Nov. 23, isn't old enough for membership in the LPGA but is proving she belongs. Without her mistake at No. 17, Jutanugarn would have matched the course record of 62 set in the first round last year by eventual winner Jiyai Shin.

The long-hitting 5-foot-4 Jutanugarn, who averaged 276 yards on her measured drives Thursday, consistently bombed tee shots past 6-foot playing partner Sandra Gal (68), setting up short iron approaches. Jutanugarn opened with six birdies on the first seven holes.

LPGA players have quickly discovered the key to Jutanugarn's transcendent game -- her length and accuracy off the tee.

"She's really long," said the No. 1 ranked Park (68). "She'll have a big advantage on this course."

Jutanugarn is splitting time between the Ladies European Tour -- where she has already won this year -- and the LPGA. In the last four months, Jutanugarn has played in five different continents.

She travels with her father, while her 18-year-old sister Moriya, who qualified for the LPGA Tour last fall, travels with her mother. This week both are at Kingsmill, though Moriya (73) had a tougher time Thursday.

"We try to beat each other all the time," Jutanugarn said. "After the round, I tell her what I miss, what I do wrong, she try to help me."

On Thursday, it was the little sister offering the help.

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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