The LPGA has been a bimodal world since Se Ri Pak increased the sport of South Korean golf by winning the US Women’s Open in 1998. Since then, South Korea and the United States have dominated the tour, with their respective flags – both red, white, and blue – gracing the top of the tour’s leaderboards.
But a third red-white-blue banner will appear among the dueling powers in 2021. In 21 tournaments played on the LPGA Tour this season, tour professionals from Thailand have the second-most wins (four) of all countries, ahead of South Korea (three) and only the USA (seven).
Ask most observers and they will tell you the rise of Thai talent touring is the LPGA’s 15-year win, which made a tour stop in the country in 2006 with the introduction of the Honda LPGA Thailand.
“Just bringing the event to Thailand every year was a big impact,” said Patty Tavatanakit, a 21-year-old rookie who took a groundbreaking victory in April by winning the ANA Inspiration. “I can safely say that I wouldn’t grow up to go to these events and watch them play and make it my dream to get out of here.”
Two years before the start of the Honda LPGA Thailand, Russy Gulyanamitta became the first Thai golfer to make the tour. In fact, the nation was not worth mentioning under the Gulf powers at the time. In 2006, only one Thai golfer had a single top 10 result, Virada Nirapathpongporn’s T-5 at the LPGA Corning Classic.
Even so, Honda Automobile, the Thailand-based title sponsor, began laying the groundwork for the rise of golf in the country by taking advantage of its sponsor’s invitations to local Thai players. In the first year of the tournament, current Tour members Pornanong Phatlum and Jasmine Suwannapura (later a two-time Tour winner) made their first LPGA launches. Then Moriya Jutanugarn (2009), Ariya Jutanugarn (2010), Tavatanakit (2015) and Pajaree Anannarukarn (2017), the four LPGA winners from Thailand this year, performed their first tours at the event.
More importantly, the tournament’s golf investment reached grassroots levels. Tournament officials held golf classes with LPGA players during the week to teach Thai children the game. Pro-Am parties let participants learn more about life on the tour. Tavatanakit remembered soaking up everything Honda LPGA Thailand could offer their golf dreams in 2012. She took a training course and then attended the Pro-Am party with a friend where she had a talk with Christina Kim and a photo taken with Paula Creamer.
“Little moments like this keep inspiring the younger me,” said Tavatanakit. “I’m sure younger people, younger kids, would feel inspired too having these moments.”
In return, the investment kicked off the game’s explosive growth in the country. A decade later, Ariya Jutanugarn won the 2016 Ricoh British Women’s Open, becoming the first Thai player to win a major. In her post-round victory press conference, Jutanugarn kept her goals small but meaningful.
“I hope I can inspire someone in Thai [to take up golf]“, Said Jutanugarn after her victory.
Jutanugarn’s victory sparked its own wave of Thai LPGA victories. In the past six years, Thai players have won 18 LPGA tournaments. This is the third most common of any country at the time, behind South Korea (55) and the United States (37).
In signs of exponential growth, the 18 wins are more than half of the top 10 Thai LPGA members from the previous decade (32) after the Honda LPGA Thailand was founded in 2006-2015.
Ariya (12 wins including the youngest with her sister) holds the bulk of the Thai LPGA trophies, but the list of winners keeps growing. Suwanapurra and Moriya Jutanugarn won 2018 for the first time with two wins each. Tavatanakit and Anannarukarn joined their compatriots this year.
Thailand’s growing talent goes beyond its winners. Atthaya Thitikul almost won the Honda LPGA Thailand this season if Ariya hadn’t snatched victory from her with a 63 in the final round, defeated Thitikul by one and became the first Thai player to win the tournament. The 18-year-old Thitikul impressed on two tours in 2021. She has not landed outside the top 5 in four starts at the LPGA and is at the top of the Ladies European Tour Money List with one win and seven top 10 in ten at the LET. Wichanee Meechai scored her best T-5 of her career at the Pure Silk Championship this year and T-8 at the ISPS Handa World Invitational.
Phatlum finished second in the women’s British Open 2018. Despite tropical Thailand and the UK’s temperate climate, Thai players have finished in the top two places three of the last five AIG Women’s Opens. Suwannapura finished second behind Sophia Popov in 2020.
“I imagine we’re like them [South] Koreans, for whom we are always at the top of the leaderboard, ”said Tavatanakit. “We are often on top of each other in the leaderboards. I have the feeling that every time I see this, I’m so proud that we as a country can also be dominant and do that out here [on the LPGA]. “
Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, founders of Vision54, have their fingerprints all over the increasing depth of Thailand. You have worked with the Jutanugarns for the past six seasons, with Tavatanakit for the past two years, and with Anannarukarn and Meechai who attend Vision54’s golf schools. The couple noticed the growth of Thai golf through the increasing enrollment in their academy and the additional demand for their coaching.
“We had about 15 Thai players coming for coaching or our golf schools,” Nilsson said via email. “Great interest among Thai teachers to come to the US for training or to do our distance training.”
The current Thai success at the LPGA is fueling the troubled wheel that has led to expansive growth in women’s golf in Thailand. Investing in opportunities leads to moments of inspiration, leads to more players on the LPGA, and leads to further investments in opportunities.
Last week’s Trust Scottish Open is the latest example of Thailand’s continued association with the LPGA. It is the second tour event with a Thai company, Trust Golf, as the title sponsor. Like the Honda LPGA Thailand, Trust provided opportunities for golf players from its home country with 11 Thai players in the field.
“I feel like it’s more like the Thai Tour at the moment,” said Meechai after the first round of the Trust Scottish Open. “As you can see, I meet a lot of Thai girls and can speak Thai with them. I feel so comfortable with them. I love it.”
Thai players were also in the running at Dumbarnie Links. Ariya [fourth] and Thitikul [T-2] ended up in the top 10.
Former LPGA commissioner Mike Whan cited Thailand as a successful example of how podium sports at the Olympics can fuel the growth of golf within a nation; Ariya Jutanugarn and Tavatanakit represented the country two weeks ago at the Tokyo Games. South Korea and the United States own women’s golf at the Games and are 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 continued to hold its ground by winning a gold medal with Inbee Park  and Nelly Korda  today’s two gold medalists.
At the 2024 Games, Tavatanakit has her eye on the next step in the rise of Thai Gulf into the LPGA powers.
“Hopefully there will be four players from Thailand by the time we get to Paris,” said Tavatanakit.