She came to the other side of the world to play golf. Because of that, she ended up finding herself as a person.
When LPGA Tour rookie Patty Tavatanakit first set foot on American soil, she was a wide-eyed 10-year-old, two years into a game she took up because Tiger Woods played in her homeland of Thailand. Tavatanakit, whose parents had her in dance and drama but not sports, showed no interest in golf prior to seeing Woods. It was January 2008. She had turned eight the previous October. “I saw Tiger on television, and how he played, how he carried himself, everything he did and I said, ‘Dad, I want to be like that,’” Patty said. “It changed my perspective. It really changed my life.”
Tiger in Thailand launched a movement, one that can be seen every week on the LPGA Tour where a solid Thai contingent can be found in every field. Patty, who is currently ranked inside the Rolex Rankings top-150 despite being an LPGA rookie who has played only one event as a Tour member, was one of many driven by what she saw in Woods.
But while Tiger peaked her interest in the game, Patty had other advantages that kept the fires burning. For starters, she lived 10 minutes from a driving range that was mostly a lake. The range balls were floaters. If there was anything that could make golf cool for an eight-year-old kid, it was hitting balls into a lake and having them float back to shore.
She also possessed the one attribute kids want more than any other. “I’ve always been a long hitter,” Patty said. “I was always the biggest girl in the group and I had wedges into almost every green. Being able to walk farther down the fairway and having to wait while everybody behind you hits, that’s the best feeling.”
Patty instantly loved golf. Her father entered her in a junior event near their home in Thailand when she was nine years old. She won. “I was the happiest girl on the course,” she said. “I celebrated every shot, even when I hit it into the bunker, because I hadn’t hit it in the bunker all day. I was thrilled to get to hit a bunker shot. I was happy about everything.”
Then, at age 10, her family took her to San Diego for the Junior World Championship.
“Since that time, it’s always been my goal to come here (to America) to play,” Patty said. “I came here (as a junior) and saw all the golf courses and how beneficial it is to be here. So starting at age 10 and every year after that, I came here and realized that I wanted to come to America and play college golf and then play on the LPGA Tour. Yeah, it changed everything for me.”
She played in AJGA events starting at age 14, finishing fifth in her first and winning the second one she ever played. The victories, the scores, and the prodigious length made her the darling of many college coaches. There has always been a pop to Patty’s shots, a sound that causes an otherwise bored observer to raise a head and meander over to see if the eyes match what the ears just heard. It didn’t take long for coaches from Duke, Texas, UCLA and others to make entrees.
“I was traveling and playing for the Thailand Ladies Golf Association during that time,” Patty said. “So, when I got pre-approved (into school) I said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to UCLA.’ Plus, whenever I came over from Thailand, I always stopped in L.A. first. I knew the area pretty well and I felt at home.”
But it wasn’t the homey feel of Los Angeles that changed Patty’s life. In fact, it was the opposite. For the first time, she felt free to find herself, to branch out, to be creative, to learn and explore.
“The environment I grew up in, it was Asia, it was Thailand, it was traditional and conservative,” she said. “There was not a lot of individuality or expressiveness outside the norms in that environment. I got to California and realized that it is very diverse. There were a lot of Asians (in Los Angeles and at UCLA) but they were able to be themselves, be who they really wanted to be outside the culture.”
That liberation allowed Patty to find her own identity, to grow and become confident in who she is and where she wants to be.
“I found myself during my time at UCLA,” she said. “It took a while. But now it’s very clear who Patty is.”
Part of that self-discovery has been gaining confidence on the course while understanding and embracing the areas where she needs improvement. She’s not comfortable with large crowds yet. At the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio, she played with Natalie Gulbis and someone yelled “mashed potatoes” when Patty hit a drive. That jarred her a little. She knows she needs to get used to galleries.
“But because of my Symetra Tour experience I don’t feel like I’m a rookie,” she said. “I’m comfortable (on the LPGA Tour) and feel like I can compete with everyone. At the same time, I realize that it is my first year and I have a lot to learn. So the humble side of me is saying, ‘Take it easy and learn as much as you can every single week.’ It’s certainly a learning process for everyone. You can’t stop growing. There is always more to learn.”