By Lexi Hamel
Pluem Yongyuan: The former No.1-ranked women’s golfer in the NCAA looks towards a professional career as she helps establish SUU golf on the national stage.
Chanikan “Pluem” Yongyuan has made history for not only the women’s golf team, but also women’s athletics as a whole at Southern Utah University and, even as her college career nears its end, Yongyuan’s competitive golf career is far from over.
SUU was able to secure Yongyuan’s collegiate golfing career despite several larger universities including Purdue University, San Diego State University, University of Arkansas and Kansas State University among other NCAA Division I programs lining up to take a shot at recruiting her.
Although Yongyuan had the attention of some of the top schools in the nation, the Phitsanulok, Thailand native chose to come to SUU because of the golf program that the university offers.
“Coach [Richard] Church, along with the Cedar City community, was very welcoming,” Yongyuan said. “I did not have any second thoughts. It just felt like home.”
Church, SUU’s women and men’s golf head coach, began trying to recruit Yongyuan when she was just 17 years old.
Yongyuan caught the attention of many D-I coaches during her junior golf career. She won the TGA-SINGHA Junior Golf Championship in her age division which qualified her to play in the SINGHA Thailand Junior World in 2017.
Eadyoungone Yongyuan, Pluem’s father, introduced her to golf at 10 years old.
“I always knew that she was athletic so we got her into sports when she was young,” He said. “She picked up golf very quickly—it amazed me. Pluem still amazes me to this day.”
Yongyuan has had numerous accomplishments during her time at SUU. Each season that she has competed in has been a new opportunity for her to gain national recognition.
In the 2018-19 golf season, during her freshman year, Yongyuan won her very first collegiate tournament at Utah Valley University’s Hobble Creek Classic.
Yongyuan carded a 210 (76, 63, 71) for the three rounds. The score of her eight-under-par, 63, has continued to remain her personal best round.
“After shooting a 63, it felt unreal,” Yongyuan said. “I was shocked. The round could not have been more perfect.”
Yongyuan finished her freshman year on a high. She had two individual wins and eight top-10 finishes throughout the season as well as being named Big Sky Freshman of the Year.
With her numerous top finishes and national recognition, Yongyuan was named to the Big Sky All-Conference First Team and became the first women’s golfer from SUU to be invited to the NCAA regionals.
Entering her sophomore year in the 2019-20 season, Yongyuan earned her third career win at the Wyoming Cowgirl Desert Intercollegiate by carding a 219 (69, 76, 74).
Yongyuan’s sophomore year season was cut short due to the COVID pandemic. The remainder of the 2019-20 season and the fall season of the 2020-21 year were canceled for safety precautions.
Although her sophomore season was cut short, Yongyuan was named to the Big Sky All-Conference First Team for the second consecutive team.
During the time off from competing, the women’s team got the opportunity to build their relationships and strengthen the team dynamic.
“Our team dynamic has been very good,” Yongyuan said. “We worked hard together and cheered for one another to prepare for the upcoming season.”
The hard work and dedication paid off for Yongyuan. She earned her fourth career win at the Grand Canyon University Invitational after collegiate play had resumed during the spring 2021 season.
Almost immediately after her win, Yongyuan was ranked as the No. 1 Individual in the NCAA.
“Being ranked as the No. 1 in the NCAA has been my proudest accomplishment,” Yongyuan said. “It was a surreal feeling and I was so proud to represent SUU.”
To end her junior year, Yongyuan finished in the top-10 during the Big Sky Conference Championship and was named in the Big Sky All-Conference First Team for the third consecutive time. Yongyuan became the second Thunderbird to be named to the First Team, but the only T-Bird with three First Team honors.
As Yongyuan has competed throughout her senior year, her record breaking streak has continued.
After her most recent win at the Lady Thunderbird Pizza Invitational, Yongyuan set the record for the most career Big Sky Conference Women's Golfer of the Week awards.
“I feel really happy and proud,” Yongyuan said. “Setting the record is an honor and I am so grateful to be a part of the golf program.”
Yongyuan overtook the record of the previous holder, A Ram Choi of Portland State University, who had won the award 11 times.
“We are really proud of Pluem in winning her sixth individual title and breaking this conference record,” Church said. “We are very excited to see what the future holds both here at Southern Utah University and in Pluem's future golfing career.”
Although Yongyuan’s senior year is nearing its end, she is laser-focused on her future golf career.
After the pandemic cut the 2019-20 NCAA season short, athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility. Yongyuan plans to take her extra year if she does not turn professional first.
“Playing for SUU has meant the world to me. I would be happy to stay another year but if I get the option to turn professional, it would be a job that I would enjoy doing every single day,” Yongyuan said.
Yongyuan has made a significant impact for the women’s golf program at SUU. Her standings have brought national attention not only to her game but also to the university’s program.
“In the coming years, I expect SUU to have a great program for the next generation,” Yongyuan said. “I think the program can help athletes improve their skills to get to the next level and fulfill their college golf dreams.”
Lexi Hamel, from St. George, Utah, is a Southern Utah University senior on the Women’s Golf team. Hamel is majoring in political science and will head to Washington D.C. this summer to work for a consulting firm. In 2020-21 She was honored for her academic achievement by the Women’s Golf Coaches Association.
Video Courtesy Wesley Ruff, ABC 4 Sports
The Summer of Summerhays II
Last summer, Grace Summerhays barely missed her chance of winning a State Amateur title at an even younger age than her brother did. Her next-best possible achievement came July 16, when she became the youngest champion ever in the 114th Women’s State Amateur. Terry Norman Hansen, whose first of four titles came in 1980 when she was 17, was the previous youngest champion.
Having turned 16 the previous week, Summerhays validated her trophy with a 3-and-1 victory over four-time champion Kelsey Chugg in the 18-hole final match. That breakthrough came after she reversed the outcome of last year’s title match with a 1-up defeat of BYU golfer Kerstin Fotu in the morning semifinals on Soldier Hollow’s Gold Course.
That’s the venue where her brother Preston won his second State Am title last summer, a year after becoming the youngest winner of that historic event – about a month before his 16th birthday.
“Well, now I matched him,”Grace Summerhays said, smiling. “So that’s pretty fun.”
The latest chapter of Summerhays success stories in State Amateurs came in the first event of the Utah Golf Association’s reconfigured 2020 schedule and required some toughness on the back nines of Grace’s last three matches. Sunbin Seo in the quarterfinals, Fotu in the semifinals and Chugg in the final match each rallied and made Summerhays agonize to the end. She came through every time, living up to the family tradition.
“It isn’t easy being the younger sister of Preston,” said her father/caddie, Boyd Summerhays. “That casts a teeny bit of a shadow, and she’s never looked at it as a negative.”
Grace Summerhays will be a high school junior in Arizona; her family spends the summers in Farmington. Her title follows two State Am wins for her brother, another two for her uncle, Daniel, and one for her great uncle Bruce. No family in Utah golf history can match that list.
Here’s how the week unfolded for Summerhays:
Tess Blair, the 2018 champion in her Bingham High School days, was the biggest story of the first round of stroke-play qualifying. She’s credited with the women’s record on the Gold Course after posting a 5-under-par 67 and taking a five-stroke lead over Summerhays and Chanikan Yongyuan, a Southern Utah University golfer from Thailand.
Blair, the Big Sky Conference Player of the Year as a Sacramento State freshman, went on to claim medalist honors and the No. 1 seed for match play with an 8-under-par total. Summerhays showed good signs by birdieing the last three holes for a 69 that gave her the No. 2 seed.
Having made a swing adjustment after the first round, Summerhays said, “I just exaggerated it at the end and started hitting it good. The putter’s really good, which is always good in match play, and I’m starting to hit it a lot better, so I feel good.”
Fotu, meanwhile, rallied with a 72 (a 10-stroke improvement) to make match play as the No. 14 seed, in Summerhays’ half of the bracket.
Summerhays opened match play with a 6-and-5 win over Launa Wilson. She then held off a rally by Seo, a Timpview High golfer whose surge featured a hole-in-one on No. 12, in between winning birdies on Nos. 11 and 13. Seo was 4 down after 10 holes and never quite caught up, losing 2 and 1.
The semifinal match between Summerhays and Fotu played out similarly. Summerhays was 4 up through 12 holes, before Fotu went on a putting rampage and won Nos. 13, 14 and 17. Each players tried to drive the green on the par-4 No. 18, playing 246 yards, and just missed to the right. Summerhays chipped to within 3 feet, matching Fotu’s birdie and clinching the match.
Chugg had survived a 41-hole day to overcome two teenage stars in the first two rounds (going 21 holes vs. Berlin Long and 20 holes vs. Lila Galea'i) and held off Blair for a 1-up victory of her own. Chugg made a downhill birdie putt on No. 18, with Blair positioned to force extra holes.
So the final match was set, with history to be written, one way or the other. Modeling her father’s usual all-black attire, including her two gloves, Summerhays displayed the kind of consistency and finishing power that has distinguished Chugg’s career. Chugg, 29, was the only post-college golfer to make the match-play field of 16, and she played an average of 19.67 holes in her first three matches. But after her 18th-hole birdie closed out Tess Blair in the semifinals, Chugg couldn’t play beyond No. 17 in the final match.
About a half-hour after the competition ended, she teed off on No. 18 on the way back to the clubhouse, in hopes of leaving Soldier Hollow with a better feeling after losing the final three holes to Summerhays. Her biggest regret was missing a par putt from inside of 2 feet on No. 15, followed by missing the greens with approach shots on the next two holes. Including No. 16, she bogeyed three of the four par-5s, most as a result of putting problems.
“Definitely not my best final round,” she said. “I don’t know if it was fatigue or what; just kind of lost focus. The putter was the big thing, I had no confidence.”
Tied with Summerhays through 14 holes, Chugg could have won yet another match with clutch play. Instead, it was Summerhays who steadied herself and pulled away to the victory in difficult, windy conditions.
Summerhays lost her first-round match on the Gold Course in the traditional State Amateur last year, after becoming the second woman to qualify for match play. She departed Soldier Hollow with better memories this time, while looking forward to playing in the U.S. Women’s Amateur in Maryland along with Chugg, Yongyuan and BYU's Allysha Mateo in early August.
“I’m excited about where my game is headed,” Summerhays said, having a great future to go with her family’s past.
Kurt Kragthorpe is a sports journalist and senior writer for Fairways Media and a frequent contributor to Fairways magazine.