The rapidly growing strength of golf in Thailand has been spotlighted by the extraordinary feat of teen Atthaya Thitikul who, at 14, became the youngest ever winner on the Ladies European Tour with her win in the Ladies European Thailand Championship.
At precisely 14 years, four months and 19 days Thitikul humbled seasoned professionals with a two-shot victory at Phoenix Country Club in Pattaya to etch her name into the game’s record books.
With rounds of 70-71-70-72, she finished with a total of five under par 283 for a win over Mexican Ana Menendez who had led from the opening round but nevertheless managed a career best finish and snared the winner’s cheque of 45,000 euros, which Thitikul had to forfeit due to her amateur status.
Australian Whitney Hillier, who is half-Thai, finished third, two under the card.
The Thai schoolgirl toppled New Zealander Lydia Ko as the youngest champion on the circuit. Ko was the previous youngest victor after taking out the 2013 New Zealand Open at the age of 15 years, nine months and 17 days. Ko went on to become the world No.1 before being deposed recently by Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand.
Ko was also the youngest player to win two majors and become the women’s world No.1.
It also means Thitikul is now the youngest known winner of a professional golf tournament. Canadian Brooke Henderson won a Canadian Women’s Tour event in 2012 aged 14 years, nine months and three days.
Thitikul said her caddie had kept her calm during the final round.
“I’m so happy and proud of myself. I did not look nervous, but of course I felt nerves on the first tee and on the first hole. I did not think about the score. I committed to every shot I hit and stayed relaxed. My caddie helped me a lot, not to think too much, to focus on my game plan and to plan the tee shots and second shots.
“My family do not play golf. When I was younger, aged six, my father told me to play sport and he offered tennis or golf and I watched golf on TV and I liked it.
“This trophy I give to Thailand and the Thai people.”
Despite her success, she said she would not turn professional for a few years because she needs more experience.
“I didn’t expect to win this tournament as I just came here to learn techniques from the pro players on the Ladies European,” Thitikul said.
She began the fourth round a shot behind Menendez but the Mexican dropped four shots on the front nine, handing Thitikul a two-shot lead at the turn after one birdie and two bogeys on her first nine holes.
Although she opened with a bogey on the first hole, she quickly had the momentum.
Welsh pro Amy Boulden tried with a run of three straight birdies from the 11th, but a bogey on 16 ended her charge and she ended in a tie for fourth place on one-under-par.
Mendendez made a short-lived comeback when she closed the gap to a stroke with a birdie on 11, but Thitikul responded with a birdie on 15, which gave her a two-stroke lead with three to play and both players closed with a run of three pars.
Thitikul had previously demonstrated her potential when she finished tied for 37th in the recent Honda LPGA Thailand event, which she played just a few days after her 14th birthday, on February 20. She then received an invitation to play in the inaugural LET event at Phoenix Golf and Country Club from the tournament sponsor, the Sports Authority of Thailand. Her aim was to make the cut, gain experience and have fun.
But her remarkable talent was soon on display when she shot an opening round of 70 to lie two strokes off the lead and after subsequent rounds of 71, 70, she was the only player in the field of 126 under par for each of the first three rounds.
Thitikul only reached a scratch handicap last year.
She’d already showed potential leading up to her debut at a professional tournament, finishing as a runner-up in the Queen Sirikit Cup in China, before going on to win the Taiwan amateur Open in June.
Menendez, who closed with a 75, said: “Right now, I’m disappointed, because I know I could have done better and my start was a little poor.
“There are lots of positives to take and I will go home happy. I’m looking forward to the rest of the year and I’ve made huge strides from this year to last year, so I’m proud of myself and my team.
“I was feeling nervous again and it wasn’t quite comfortable today, with my swing and everything. I was in between clubs a lot so it was tough to make decisions and overall it was a tough day for me.”
Hillier said: “I only made two birdies today and I was so patient out there. I made nothing on the front nine and then finally made a couple in the end. It was a solid game and I was very happy with that. I tried to get myself back up there and I did.
“I’ve been working really hard the last couple of months as well, but it does help to have local support, my mum and all of her friends cheering me on.”