All smiles: Jutanugarn in position for LPGA player of year

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NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — Ariya Jutanugarn has already decided the first thing she will do if she wins the bonus cash that accompanies the Race to the CME Globe title.

She'll take her mom out for a celebratory dinner.

Figure on appetizers and dessert being included, since the prize is $1 million.

This would have seemed an unlikely scenario a few months ago, but Jutanugarn has arrived at the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship as the leader for the CME Globe — with that $1 million bonus — and the yearlong money title. A five-time winner this season, Jutanugarn will be player of the year unless world No. 1 Lydia Ko prevails this week.

"This year I changed my focus," Jutanugarn said. "I try to focus just really positive, not too negative. Even if I hit bad shots, don't really complain about it and just try to hit the next shot."

Those bad shots don't seem to happen too often.

The 20-year-old from Thailand added something to her pre-shot routine in April, and it had nothing to do with her grip or her swing. She started smiling before most shots, a little trick she's used to keep her mind right over the course of a round.

It's worked wonders.

"Ariya has been playing great and she's consistently putting herself in good positions," Ko said.

Most around the LPGA Tour call Jutanugarn "May" — a fitting moniker this year. She made three starts this May and won them all, her first LPGA victories coming in succession and starting her springboard to No. 2 in the world.

And her ascension into the level of the LPGA elite has been rapid.

Jutanugarn didn't make the cut in the first stop this season, shot a final-round 84 in her second start and finished a combined 39 shots behind the winners during a rather unremarkable two-week stretch in March.

"You still remember?" Jutanugarn asked, rhetorically. "Did I really shoot 84?"

Jutanugarn was kidding. She recalls every detail of that day, hammering away with her driver over and over again — even on the holes where she shouldn't have hit driver — trying to figure out what was going wrong.

Those days are long gone.

Jutanugarn, Ko and Brooke Henderson are the three players entering this week with the most realistic chance of hoisting the CME Globe, which goes to the winner of the yearlong points race on the tour. All posed with a plexiglass box holding $1 million to represent the bonus cash that goes to the Globe winner on Monday, and that's when Jutanugarn let her mind wander to what winning it would be like.

Her scoring average after her first six starts this season was 72.4. In 21 starts since, it's 69.3.

"The bad shots," she said, "inspired me to hit better shots."

She leads the money race by a slim margin over Ko entering this week, and she needed no time to decide which trophy she'd want most this week if she could leave Naples with only one.

"To me, it would be player of the year," Jutanugarn said. "It's a really huge honor to win that award. To me, that's the hardest one to win."

Maybe so, but she's made contending for it look easy.

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