By Andrew Both
SHOALCREEK, Ala. (Reuters) – Thai teenager Patty Tavatanakit found herself in elite company with a two-under-par 70 in the first round at the U.S. Women’s Open on Thursday, the latest in a growing production line of talent to emerge from her homeland.
The battle-hardened amateur, who plays collegiately at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), looked the part against the game’s top professionals, recording only one bogey in an almost blemish-free round at Shoal Creek.
Tavatanakit said she and other young Thais had been inspired by the feats of the Jutanugarn sisters, Ariya and Moriya, who between them have nine LPGA victories – eight by Ariya and one by Moriya.
“It really drives everyone, the younger generation, to be up here,” Tavatanakit told Reuters, raising her hand above her head after a round that left her three shots behind leader Ariya.
“Seeing they can do it proves to us that we can be up here too. It really drives the younger generation.”
But Tavatanakit’s path has diverted from the Jutanugarn sisters in one significant aspect.
“I wanted to go to college,” said Tavatanakit, 18, who has just completed her first year at UCLA. “Everyone’s really good here. That kind of motivates me too.”
Though this is Tavatanakit’s first professional event of the year, she is coming off three straight weeks of collegiate competition, and talks very much like a professional.
“It’s kind of my job. I want to think that way,” she said, clearly flagging her intention to turn pro at the appropriate time.
“I know my job is to go out there and play normal golf. Whatever I shoot, it’s just another round of golf. Under par, I’m really happy.”
While South Korea remains the dominant Asian nation in women’s golf, Thailand has emerged as a clear second, overtaking more traditional golf nation Japan.
Tavatanakit is one of seven Thai players in the 156-player field at the U.S. Women’s Open.
Ariya, currently ranked fifth in the world, has been as high as number one, while Moriya is also highly-ranked at ninth.
It has been less than 15 years since the first Thai players arrived on the LPGA Tour, while Pornanong Phatlum, at 28, is the elder stateswoman, the first from the country to establish herself long-term on the circuit.
Phatlum has been on the LPGA Tour for nearly a decade and did not have any Thai role models to follow. Instead, she was inspired by a player half a world away.
“Lorena Ochoa, she was my idol,” Phatlum said of the former number one from Mexico, who won 27 times on the LPGA Tour before retiring eight years ago aged 28.
(Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by Ken Ferris)