She's one of the most formidable talents in the game, but the pandemic stalled Atthaya Thitikul's career. It won't stop her, writes Richard Talbot
It’s an exciting time for Thai golf. Ariya Jutanugarn is a two-time major champion and former World No 1, while sister Moriya is also an LPGA Tour winner. And don’t think 21-year-old Patty Tavatanakit, who lifted the ANA Inspiration to become Thailand’s second major champion in April, is the end of the emerging talent.
The ‘Land of Smiles’ has a whole host of young golfers waiting to announce themselves on the big stage.
Already in 2021, Chanettee Wannasaen and Phannarai Meesom-Us, both 16, and 18-year-old Arpichaya Yubol have made national headlines.
But there is no player attracting more media attention than Atthaya Thitikul, another 18-year-old who hails from Ratchaburi, 75 miles south west of Bangkok.
The teenager, known as ‘Jeeno’, turned professional in January 2020 and had hoped to spend her first season playing on the Ladies European Tour. This was derailed by the Covid pandemic as travel restrictions meant that that she has remained in Thailand. But she has used her time well, winning six professional tournaments and claiming the Thai LPGA Order of Merit.
Before turning pro she reached No 1 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. In 2018 she won the inaugural Asia-Pacific Championship in Singapore to earn her a place at the HSBC World Championship on the same course the following week. At 15, she finished eighth – just four shots behind champion Michelle Wie and above a host of the biggest names in the women’s game.
Prior to that, Thitikul had won the 2017 European Thailand Ladies Championship just four months after her 14th birthday to become the youngest winner of a professional golf tournament.
That qualified her for the 2017 Women’s Open at Kingsbarns, and in the following two years she won the Smyth Salver for leading amateur in 2018 at Royal Lytham and 2019 at Woburn.
In 2019 she retained her European Thailand Championship at Phoenix Gold Golf & Country Club where once again the players from the Ladies European Tour were unable to cope with the talented teenager. Her winning total of 22-under-par included a course-record 63 in the third round.
But having already achieved as much as many players would be happy with in their entire career, there are concerns that Thitikul may have difficulties living up to expectations.
Any concerns can perhaps be shelved thanks to her recent third place at the Thailand Mixed Men and Women’s event in Chiang Mai. Grouped on the last day with Prom Meesawat and Chapchai Nirat from the men’s Asian Tour, Atthaya managed a fine 5-under-par despite being under intense pressure from her experienced male rivals.
This is a golfer who thrives in this pressurised atmosphere with her ever-constant smile portraying how much she enjoys the challenge.
This week, Thitikul will be competing in the LPGA Honda event at Siam Country Club in Thailand alongside the leading players in the world. It will be interesting to see how she copes playing alongside the other young Thai emerging players such as Tavatanakit and Pajaree Anannarukarn, who also performed strongly at the ANA Inspiration.
Later in May, Thitikul will be relocating to Europe to play the rest of this season on the LET. This will give her many opportunities to compete in a number of co-sanctioned competitions before she enters LPGA Q school in October.
With her career back on track, remember the name.
- Richard Talbot is a freelance journalist who covers the Thai LPGA and the newly-formed Thai WPGA