11 July 2024

As a young girl, Paphangkorn Tavatanakit watched golf legend Tiger Woods on TV and told her dad “That’s who I want to be.” Her dream of golf superstardom came true this month when the 21-year-old made a stunning breakthrough on the global stage.   

On April 4, “Patty Tavatanakit” as she is professionally known, made headlines around the world when she completed a wire-to-wire victory in the first Major tournament of the season, the ANA Inspiration in California.

Fending off a late challenge from former world No 1 and 2016 champion Lydia Ko of New Zealand, the Thai prodigy kept her cool to defy the odds and score her maiden LPGA crown with a two-stroke victory. She is the only second Thai winner of a Major, after Ariya Jutanugarn triumphed at the 2016 Women’s British Open.

Apart from the lucrative winner’s purse of US$450,000 (Bt14.5 million), the victory propelled Patty from No 103 to No 13 in the world rankings, meaning she overtakes Ariya to become Thailand’s new No 1 women’s golfer. The former UCLA Bruin student is also the first rookie to win the ANA Inspiration since Juli Inkster in 1984. Her historic feat heralded the “arrival of golf’s next superstar”, according to the LPGA.

Shining star

Nevertheless, Patty’s leap into the limelight did not happen overnight. Her journey to greatness began in 2017 when she made a momentous decision to leave her motherland for a scholarship at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where she hoped to sharpen her golf skills. It proved a good move for the determined Thai, whose seven amateur titles include the WGCA First Team All-American at UCLA.

However, it was her finish as best amateur and fifth overall at the 2018 US Women’s Open, the most prestigious of all five Majors on the women’s tour, that prompted Patty to make another big step. In May 2019, she rolled the dice by leaving UCLA after two years to pursue a professional career in golf.

Incredibly, it took her just a few months to land her first pro win, at the Donald Ross Classic on the Symetra Tour, a step ladder to the LPGA. She went on to win two more events and finished 2019 as Rookie of the Year and No 2 player on the tour, earning her a berth for the 2020 LPGA season.

Patty Tavatanakit plays her shot from the third tee during the final round of the LPGA Drive On Championship at Golden Ocala Golf Club on March 07, 2021 in Ocala, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves)

In her first year on the women’s premier tour, Patty managed only one top 10 finish in 14 events. But the tide turned in February when she scored her first top 5 finish as a professional at the Gainbridge LPGA. Two months later, she took the world by storm in the year’s first Major.

“It feels great to be a Major champion,” said Patty, who is based in the US. “It still hasn’t really sunk in yet the fact that I’m like … I just turned 21 six months ago and now I’m a Major champion in my rookie year. Just crazy,” she added.

Power and precision

Unwavering concentration, a tremendous average driving distance of 323 yards off the tee, and well-crafted putts were the keys that unlocked her breakthrough. Even former world No 1 Shanshan Feng of China, who played in the same group as the Thai in the third round, was awed by Patty’s power and precision.

“She’s an amazing player. I actually learned a lot from her,” China’s winner of 10 LPGA titles said. “In the past I would say if you’re a long hitter then maybe your short game is not as good. Now the girls are long, straight, have good short games.”

Patty’s triumph confirms Thailand as a powerhouse of women’s golf on the world stage. The Kingdom, where golf is a niche sport for the wealthy, had previously produced three LPGA title winners: Ariya, her sister Moriya Jutanugarn and Jasmine Suwannapura.

With another name now added to that list of global successes, it won’t be a surprise to see more Thai winners on the LPGA in years to come. And we may not have to wait long – the LPGA Thailand tees off next month in Pattaya. Of course, Patty will be among the stars strutting their stuff at the home tournament. Expect all eyes to be fixed on the new hope of Thai women’s golf.

By Thai PBS World’s Sport Desk