The LPGA has been a bimodal world since Se Ri Pak elevated South Korean golf by winning the 1998 US Women’s Open. Since then, South Korea and the United States have dominated the tour, with their respective flags – both featuring red, white, and blue – peppering the top of the tour’s leaderboards.
But a third red, white, and blue banner is emerging among the duelling powers in 2021. In 21 tournaments played on the LPGA Tour this season, tour pros from Thailand have the second-most victories (four) of any country, ahead of South Korea (three) and trailing only the USA (seven).Ask most observers and they’ll tell you the rise of Thai talent on tour is the 15-year payoff of the LPGA creating a tour stop in the country in 2006 with the launch of the Honda LPGA Thailand.
“Just bringing the event to Thailand every single year, it’s been a big impact,” said Patty Tavatanakit, a 21-year-old rookie who earned a breakthrough victory in April when she won the ANA Inspiration. “I can say for a fact I wouldn’t grow up going to those events and watch them play and make it my dream to come out here.”Two years before the Honda LPGA Thailand began, Russy Gulyanamitta became the first Thai golfer to reach the tour. Indeed, the nation wasn’t worth mentioning among golf powers at the time. In 2006, just one Thai golfer recorded one lone top-10 finish, Virada Nirapathpongporn’s T-5 at the LPGA Corning Classic.
Even so, Honda Automobile, the Thai-based title sponsor, started laying the groundwork for the rise of golf within the country, using its sponsor’s invitations on local Thai players. In the tournament’s first year, current tour members Pornanong Phatlum and Jasmine Suwannapura (an eventual two-time tour winner) made their maiden LPGA starts. Subsequently, Moriya Jutanugarn (2009), Ariya Jutanugarn (2010), Tavatanakit (2015) and Pajaree Anannarukarn (2017), the four LPGA winners from Thailand this year, all made their first appearances on tour at the event.
More importantly, the tournament’s investment in golf reached the grassroots level. Tournament officials hosted golf clinics with LPGA players during the week to teach the game to Thai kids. Pro-am parties let participants learn more about life on tour. Tavatanakit recalled soaking in all the Honda LPGA Thailand could offer her golf dreams in 2012. She participated in a clinic, then attended the pro-am party with a friend that let her talk with Christina Kim and take a photo with Paula Creamer.
“Little moments like that keep on inspiring my younger self,” Tavatanakit said. “I’m sure I believe younger people, younger kids would feel inspired too if they have those moments.”In turn, the investment set in motion what would be the game’s explosive growth within the country. A decade later Ariya Jutanugarn won the 2016 Ricoh British Women’s Open, making her the first Thai player to win a Major. In her post-round victory press conference, Jutanugarn kept her aims small but meaningful.
“I hope I can inspire somebody in Thai [to take up golf],” Jutanugarn said after her victory.
Jutanugarn’s win launched its own surge of Thai LPGA victories. In the past six years, Thai players have won 18 LPGA tournaments. That’s the third most of any country over that time, trailing only South Korea (55) and the United States (37).
In signs of the exponential growth, the 18 victories are more than half the top-10s Thai LPGA members had from the preceding decade (32) after the creation of the Honda LPGA Thailand in 2006 to 2015.
Ariya (12 wins including the most recent with her sister) holds the bulk of Thai LPGA trophies, but the list of winners is expanding. Suwanapurra and Moriya Jutanugarn won for the first time in 2018, having two victories each. Tavatanakit and Anannarukarn joined their compatriots this year.
Thailand’s growing talent extends beyond its winners. Atthaya Thitikul almost won the Honda LPGA Thailand this season, if not for Ariya snatching victory out of her hands with a final-round 63 to beat Thitikul by one and to become the first Thai player to win the tournament. The 18-year-old Thitikul is impressing on two tours in 2021. She hasn’t finished outside the top-five in four starts on the LPGA and sits atop the Ladies European Tour moneylist with a victory and seven top-10s in ten starts on the LET. Wichanee Meechai posted her career-best T-5 at the Pure Silk Championship this year and finished T-8 at the ISPS Handa World Invitational.
Phatlum finished runner-up at the 2018 Women’s British Open. Despite tropical Thailand and temperate UK’s opposing climates, Thai players have finished in the top two in three of the past five AIG Women’s Opens. Suwannapura finished second to Sophia Popov in 2020.“I envision us to be sort of like the [South] Koreans, where we’re always on top of the leaderboard,” Tavatanakit said. “A lot of times we’re just on top of leaderboards on top of each other. I feel like every time I see that, I feel so proud that we as a country, we can also be dominant and do this out here [on the LPGA].”
Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, founders of Vision54, have their fingerprints all over the rising Thai depth. They’ve worked with the Jutanugarns for the past six seasons, Tavatanakit for the past two years, as well as Anannarukarn and Meechai attending Vision54’s golf schools. The pair noticed the growth of Thai golf within the increased enrollment in their academy and the additional demand for their coaching.
“We have had about 15 Thai players coming for coaching or our golf schools,” Nilsson said via e-mail. “Lots of interest among Thai teachers to come to the US for training or do our remote trainings.”
The current Thai success on the LPGA is fuelling the churning wheel that’s led to expansive growth in women’s golf in Thailand. Investment in opportunities leads to inspiring moments, leading to more players on the LPGA, leading to further investment in opportunities.
The Trust Scottish Open last week is the latest example of Thailand’s continued connection with the LPGA. It’s the second tour event with a Thai-based company, Trust Golf, as the title sponsor. Like the Honda LPGA Thailand, Trust Golf provided opportunities to players from its homeland, with 11 Thai players in the field.
“I feel like it’s more like Thai Tour right now,” Meechai said after the first round of the Scottish Open. “Like you see, meet a lot of Thai girls and can speak Thai with them. I feel so comfortable with them. I love it.”
Thai players were in contention as well at Dumbarnie Links. Ariya [fourth] and Thitikul [T-2] finished inside the top-10.
Former LPGA commissioner Mike Whan singled out Thailand as a thriving example of how podium sports in the Olympics can fuel golf’s growth within a nation; Ariya Jutanugarn and Tavatanakit representing the country in the Tokyo Games two weeks ago. South Korea and the United States have owned women’s golf at the Games, being the only two nations to send four athletes (the Olympics requiring each player to be inside the top 15 in the Olympic Golf Rankings to have more than two representatives). Each country further asserted itself by winning a gold medal, with Inbee Park (2016) and Nelly Korda (2020) the two modern-day gold medallists.
The 2024 Games is where Tavatanakit has her eye for the next step of Thai golf’s rise into the LPGA powers.
“Hopefully by the time we get to Paris,” Tavatanakit said, “there will be four players from Thailand.”