MATILDA CASTREN HOPES TO RECREATE THE SPARK OF 2021 VICTORY AT MEDIHEAL
In June of 2021, Matilda Castren became a Rolex First-Time winner and the first Finnish champion in LPGA Tour history when she won the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship at Lake Merced Golf Club. Sitting two strokes out of the lead heading into Championship Sunday, Castren birdied her first three holes, carrying her strong play into a two-stroke victory over Min Lee. Now, the 27-year-old hopes to replicate her 2021 performance as the MEDIHEAL championship moves to a new date and new location, The Saticoy Club.
“It's a new course obviously, so I don't have the same exact memories of playing the same holes…but, yeah, there is a little bit of I feel like pressure. Like obviously I want to defend your title and do really well,” Castren said. “I'm just excited to see what the week brings. I feel like my game is trending towards the right direction and just trying to stay patient and relaxed on the course. Trying not to put too much pressure on myself and just enjoy the week and enjoy seeing my face everywhere and being the defending champion.”
While Catsren’s 2021 season was highlighted by her first win, the Finn has not been able to recreate the same magic in 2022, despite coming close with a second-place finish alongside partner Kelly Tan at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational. Though Castren has made 14 cuts in 20 starts and has earned two top-10 finishes in 2022 – similar to her 13 cuts in 17 events and two top-10 finishes in 2021 – she doesn’t feel her game has been as solid this season as it was the last.
“Everything just felt kind of easygoing, in the flow, being in good rhythm and your game is on track so everything seems like easy,” Castren explained. “This year it's been really hard. Just trying to manage those expectations and get on the same groove as last year and play as good as I can play and the same kind of game that I did last year.”
As she prepares to defend her title at MEDIHEAL, Castren is also showing her support for fellow Finn Kiira Riihijarvi, who is competing in the Epson Tour Championship this week in Daytona Beach, Fla. Riihijarvi is currently 8th on the Ascensus Race for the Card thanks in part to five top-10 finishes this season, including a win at the Ann Arbor’s Road to the LPGA powered by A2 Sports Commission, and Castren is rooting her countrywomen on as she looks to become a 2023 LPGA Tour rookie.
“I've been following her all year really and she's been doing really well, and I am just so proud and like so excited and rooting for her to be out here next year with me,” said Castren. “She's doing so well, and I sent her a few messages every now and then just reminding her that she's doing so great. When I played over there I never managed to be even close to the top ten, so it's a really big accomplishment.”
ATTHAYA THITIKUL CARRYING MOMENTUM INTO LPGA MEDIHEAL CHAMPIONSHIP
To put it simply, Atthaya Thitikul is on one heck of a roll.
The LPGA Tour rookie will make her debut in the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship this week after three-straight weeks of top-10 finishes, which included her second victory of the season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. The budding superstar is a combined -45 in her last 12 rounds stretching back to the final round of the Dana Open presented by Marathon, and is averaging +3.07 strokes gained total and +2.19 strokes gained putting in that same span. It’s a level of consistency Thitikul said she’s been working hard to find and maintain in her first year on Tour.
“You play against all the best player in the world. I mean, like every players can play really low score and then you have to beat them. So I know it's really hard, but for me second one is hard,” said Thitikul, who defeated Danielle Kang in a playoff in Arkansas. “I just feel it's hard because when you get the first one and then you have to, you know, like get it better, like work it more to put more effort, and then to put everything on it to get better and get your second win.”
Thanks to her string of impressive performances, Thitikul is now a career-best No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings at 19 years old and first in the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year race. Thitikul, who has 12 top-10 finishes in 2022, is only 208 points over Hye-Jin Choi, who has nine top-10 finishes in 22 events including three top-three results. Neither Thitikul nor Choi have clinched the award yet, and both are in the field this week and in the last four tournaments of the year, including the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship. Though the awards and rankings are prestigious, Thitikul is still aiming to be the “same old Jeeno,” with or without her accomplishments.
“If I can get it, it's just the outcome that I couldn't expect anything with it. Like I couldn't, you know, like control anything with it, because like if her -- not just Hye-Jin, I mean, beginning of the year before we started, if her or all the rookies or all the players have been rookie this year, they better than me, so I couldn't control anything,” said Thitikul. “So just keep focus on myself pretty much, not the trophy, not the award. Just keep myself to getting better every single day.”
EXCITED FOR THE CHALLENGE, DANIELLE KANG FACES FAMILIAR COURSE AT THE SATICOY CLUB
Danielle Kang could spend hours telling stories of her time at The Saticoy Club, the home of this week’s LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship. Growing up just 30 minutes from the course, Kang said she would drive down often to practice her short game and “play the golf course however I wanted.” In fact, the 29-year-old admitted she was quite the menace on the course during her adolescence, much to the dismay of the general manger at the time.
“Tom, who used to be the GM of the golf course, came out today and said I was a pain in the ass when I was 16 because I was hitting everywhere,” Kang said on Wednesday. “I got in trouble because I went from the wedge area and blasted it over the trees into the 11th green and from the 11th green I hit drivers onto the 10 green. I flipped the cart on 1. I broke a golf cart out here…It's just the stories are endless.”
This week, Kang hopes to be a menace in a different way as the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship comes to The Saticoy Club for the first time. According to the 11-year LPGA Tour veteran, the course is tricky for a few reasons including the small greens that are “always tilted” and the narrow fairways with “trees everywhere.” The biggest challenge for the field this week, Kang predicts, will be on the bumpy poa greens that are characteristic of Southern California golf courses. Knowing this, the major champion has adjusted her game plan accordingly, focusing on giving herself good par and birdie chances instead of trying to shoot a low score.
“This golf course is -- it's really a ball-striker's golf course. You have to manipulate it off the tee and into the greens. That's something that I'm good at I believe… After that, around the greens I just have to stay patient. This isn't a golf course where I'm just going to go and try and make a bunch of putts,” Kang explained. “I don't believe that the scores will be that low. I don't even think I'd go that low out here, to be honest. I’ve shot 85 here before. It's a golf course that can throw a double and a triple here and there, and it's just a fun place to be.”
Kang enters the MEDIHEAL Championship field just two weeks after her second-place finish at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G. The result was arguably her most important of the season, even more so than her victory at the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions back in January. Having recently returned to the Tour after battling a serious back injury, her finish in Arkansas was proof that her hard work and perseverance during those “heartbreaking” months away had paid off.
“I wanted to say something at Arkansas like I wish when people see me that I just want them to have hope they you can do it too. Whatever the struggle is you're going through, you're going to get through it,” said Kang, who has used her injury to gain perspective on her approach to the game. “How I practice, how I approach competition, I feel more like myself than I have in a long time, a bit more free, so I'm happy about that.”