The route to a professional golf career is through the ranks as an amateur. A Thai youngster took the amateur title at the Women’s Amateur Asia-Paci c (Feb 21-24) and then went on to play in the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore (March 1-4), emerging tied eighth among the world’s elite of women professional golfers
Emerging Thai star Atthaya Thitikul, 15, secured a dramatic wire-to-wire victory at the Women’s Amateur Asia-Pacific by winning a four-way play-off at the Sentosa Golf Club recently and securing places in two of this year’s major championships.
Continuing to sing, laugh and joke with experienced caddie Roongroj “Yod” Boonsri, Thitikul carded a closing 71 to join Japan’s Yuna Nishimura (69), the Philippines’ Yuka Saso (68) and New Zealand’s Wenyung Keh (67) with an eight-under total of 276 over the 6,456-yard New Tanjong course.
After narrowly missing birdie-putt chances to win on the first two extra holes on 18, Thitikul tapped in for par on the long par-four 12th before 17-year-old Nishimura missed a long par putt to concede victory. Keh, 20, and Saso, 16, exited after the first and second extra holes respectively.
Thitikul started the event at 53rd in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, with recent highlights including becoming the Ladies European Tour’s youngest-ever winner last July and gold medals in the SEA Games individual and team events in Malaysia a month later.
Now, she has earned invitations to the ANA Inspiration (March 29-April 1) at Mission Hills Country Club in California, US, and the Ricoh Women’s British Open (Aug 2-5) at Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club in Lancashire, England, as well as the 11th HSBC Women’s World Championship, also at Sentosa Golf Club.
Born in Ratchaburi province west of Bangkok, Thitikul made her major championship debut at the Ricoh Women’s British Open last August and the following month played in her second at The Evian Championship in France, where she made the cut.
Now, the Thai teen has earned a return to the Women’s British Open after an eventful week in which she led after an opening 65, co-led after a second-round 71 and regained the outright lead after a third-round 69 that she completed on the morning of Feb 24 when she birdied two of her last four holes.
“I’m so excited because this is the first year of this championship. It’s so great that my name is the first one on the trophy,” said Thitikul, who played in her first LPGA event at the Honda LPGA Thailand February last year, when she just turned 14.
“My golf today wasn’t so good, even though I started so good and played well in the play-off. But I didn’t ever really get nervous because I came here to learn and get experience.
“Now, I’m so excited to play in two more majors. I’m really looking forward to returning to the Women’s British Open and I would like to make the cut this time, but my main objective is always to play happy and gain more experience.”
Thitikul stretched her lead with birdies in three of the first four holes and remained 11-under after a bogey-birdie finish to the front nine. After Keh bogeyed 13, the Thai held a four-stroke lead before a double-bogey on the long par-four 12 — a hole she bogeyed in her two rounds — and then bogeyed 17 to drop back into a play-off.
“When I made a double bogey, I didn’t think it would mean that I wouldn’t win. It didn’t affect me because there were a lot of holes to go. I was a bit nervous, but I just talked with my caddie and stayed relaxed,” said Thitikul, who also had the experienced Boonsri on her bag when she won last year’s Ladies European Thailand Championship in Pattaya.
Thitikul was awarded the winner’s plate by Kei Muratsu, chairman of the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation, and received the Champion’s Medal from Thailand’s Rae-Vadee T Suwan, whom it was named after.
Like Thitikul, Keh smiled her way through the event and the University of Washington junior didn’t show any disappointment after los- ing in the play-off. Dressed in all black like her country’s rugby heroes, New Zealand’s top- ranked amateur secured her spot in the play-off drama with closing rounds of 68 and 67.
“It was a great week and I’m happy I gave myself a chance. This was a new experience I can really learn from and I don’t think I’ve been in a four-way play-off before,” said Keh, whose father is Malaysian and mother is Vietnamese.
“I just wanted to enjoy myself this week, play on an amazing golf course and it just turned out really well,” added Keh, whose elder sister Minchin is a touring pro.
In contrast, 16-year-old Natasha Oon — who has played the last two editions of the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia — left a little down- hearted despite finishing as the top Malaysian each day, eventually tying for 29th at nine-over after rounds of 69, 72, 76 and 76.
“I’m very disappointed with myself. I learnt a lot, though. It’s a hard course out there. It’s good that it’s over and I just wished I could have done better. I thought I could come back and I started off really good, but it didn’t work out,” said Oon, whose compatriot Liyana Durisic finished at 11-over.
“My scores on the first two days raised my hopes, but I set a goal every day and the first two days I reached those goals. But these last two days, I maybe had some expectations because I was on the leaderboard and to go down was really disappointing.”
Callista Chen, 19, was Singapore’s highest-placed player after every round, finishing in a tie for 37th after rounds of 72, 72, 74 and 78. The top-ranked Singaporean in the field, Chen missed out on her target of a top-20 finish, but walked away with a world of experience.
“This event has been really eye-opening and it has beengreat to be able to compete in such a large-scale event. Playingin this event alone is already quitean achievement. Playing and competing against the best in Asia Pacific,you learn a lot,” said Chen, who hit the event’s opening tee-shot.
“There was a little bit of pressure, but I guess everyone just wanted me to do well, so it was actually motivating to see so many people behind me. I feel that I’ve become a slightly better player, being able to compete under pressure, so despite the score, it’s a big step in the right direction.”
Six Japanese and five Koreans finished in the top 20, while five Filipinas finished in the top 30. The original field started with 83 players representing 18 nations, with 48 aged 18 or under, and 53 made the halfway cut.
The Women’s Amateur Asia-Pacific championship was developed by the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews to nurture talent and provide a pathway for the region’s elite female amateurs to the international stage.