Georgia Hall thrilled her home fans with a remarkably composed, two-shot victory at the Ricoh Women’s British Open on Sunday, but one of the major storylines during a memorable week at Royal Lytham & St Annes was further evidence of a Thai wave that has been steadily building this season.
Hall had to fend off the challenge of Thailand's Pornanong Phatlum in a dramatic last-day duel before she could clinch her first LPGA Tour win, while Phatlam had to settle for second place after her own hugely impressive title bid effectively ended with a double-bogey at the 17th, where she drove into a bunker.
Like Hall, Phatlum had been seeking a breakthrough victory on the LPGA Tour but the 28-year-old from Bangkok could hold her head high after leading a quartet of Thai players who finished in the top 22 at Lytham. And add to that number Thailand's Atthaya Thitikul, who earned the Smyth Salver award as the low amateur at the Ricoh Women’s British Open.
Had Phatlum triumphed on Sunday, she would have become the third Thai player to win an LPGA Tour event in just three weeks, and the second player from her country to win a major title this year. Thidapa Suwannapura won the Marathon Classic two weeks ago while Ariya Jutanugarn triumphed at the Ladies Scottish Open last week, having also landed the U.S. Women’s Open in June. Moriya Jutanugarn has also been in the winner's circle this season, doing so at the HUGEL-JTBC LA Open in April.
The Jutanugarn sisters have set the tone, and players such as Phatlum and Suwannapura have eagerly followed their lead.
"Moriya and Ariya Jutanugarn, they have inspired all the Thai golfers, so we know we can do it," said Phatlum, a nine-times winner on the Ladies Asian Golf Tour. "We can win tournaments."
Moriya watched the final holes of the Ricoh Women’s British Open on television with her sister Ariya, the Rolex Rankings World No. 1, in the players' dining area and she paid tribute to the composed on-course demeanor shown by Phatlum throughout the week at Lytham.
"She is one of the good players on the LPGA Tour and she is always very calm," Moriya told LPGA.com as she munched on the classic English dish of fish and chips. "I think she did a pretty good job of handling all the pressure this week. For a lot of players, their first win on Tour has been a major, like Pernilla (Lindberg at the 2018 ANA Inspiration). It has just got to be your week."
Asked what she thought of being an inspirational figure for Thai players, along with her sister Ariya, Moriya replied: "On this tour, everybody has a chance every week and for us I feel really honored when people say that they look up to us, they look to us to be a role model. I am pretty sure that it's going to be Pornanong's time one day and she has been working hard. She has got a lot of confidence from the past and she also has a lot of experience, so I think she will do really well."
THE VALUE OF ROLE MODELS
World No. 4 So Yeon Ryu, who finished in third place at Lytham on Sunday, knows all about the value of role models after benefiting from the likes of Se Ri Pak and Jiyai Shin in her native Korea.
"Golf in Thailand could be really similar to what Se Ri Pak did for Korea, and the Jutanugarn sisters have really been inspiring all the Thai players," Ryu told LPGA.com. "But I have heard that the Singha beer company has a really great golf program to help out all the junior golfers and professional golfers in Thailand so this is proof of how important is to have the support from your home country.
"That's one of the reasons why Korean golf is really dominating on the LPGA Tour because Se Ri Pak was not the only role model for us. After her, we had other great role models like Jiyai Shin, Na Yeon Choi, Inbee Park and now you see Sung Hyun Park playing really well since she transferred from the KLPGA to the LPGA. So it's definitely very fortunate when you have a lot of great role models, and hopefully we can have more junior golfers coming through."
The biggest influence in Thailand has been the 22-year-old Ariya, who is back for her second stint as the world's number one player and has already triumphed 10 times on the LPGA Tour, including two major championships (the 2016 Ricoh Women's British Open and this year’s U.S. Women's Open).
"When the LPGA started going to Thailand over a decade ago, you didn't really see women playing golf - and certainly not at a high professional level," said LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan. "And probably 70 percent of our fans at our tournament in Thailand were men. You jump forward to today, not only do you see a lot of women playing golf but you have around 220 players on the LPGA Tour and I think Thailand was the number two country represented at last year's Q School.
"So not only are there players who have made it to the top of the mountain but the pipeline coming behind them is pretty deep. And if you went to our event in Thailand, you'd probably see 50-50, if not 60-40, women to men. And what's really cool is the number of girls under the age of 15 you'd see around those tee boxes watching the Jutanugarn sisters, and any other number of Thai players teeing off there.
"I remember watching the Jutanugarns when Ariya was probably 12 or 13 in Thailand and she was an interesting media story but there wasn't a huge gallery out there following her. Today, you can't get anywhere near her tee box when she's teeing off - there are so many young girls watching her tee off. You can talk about the rise of Thai golfers over the last 10 years and that's been amazing. What's probably more amazing is what the next 10 years is going to look like."