Celebrating its 45th playing, the TOTO Japan Classic will host 42 of the LPGA’s world-class players to compete alongside 36 of the JLPGA’s best. Thursday, one pairing will combine the best of both worlds when new Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings No. 1 and teenage sensation Atthaya Thitikul hits the course with the highest ranked JLPGA player, No. 24 Mao Saigo, and former teen phenom – and Rory McIlroy swing lookalike – Yuka Saso.
The 19-year-old rookie from Thailand’s charge to the top has finally ended and she has been crowned the new world No. 1. Thitikul’s solo sixth place result at the BMW Ladies Championship was just enough to tip the scales in her favor and unseat Jin Young Ko, who had managed to hold her No. 1 spot for 38 weeks.
But Thitikul’s battle is far from over and she will launch the first defense of her new title at the TOTO Japan Classic. Luckily for Thitikul, No. 2 Jin Young Ko and No. 3 Lydia Ko will not be competing this week giving the rookie a chance to distance herself from the nearest competition.
Looking to add to her world No. 1 honors, Thitikul is in the running for almost every single end of season award the LPGA has to offer and a strong performance this weekend could send her to the top of a few more leaderboards. Thitikul currently leads the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year competition with a 230-point lead over Hye-Jin Choi but has yet to clinch the title. She is second in both the Vare Trophy and Aon Risk Reward Challenge standings and fourth in the Rolex Player of the Year race.
In June 2021, Saso earned her LPGA Tour card with an astonishing win at the U.S. Women’s Open at just 19-years-old, becoming the fourth Japanese player to win a major after Hinako Shibuno and Hideki Matsuyama. She played the rest of the 2021 season as a member of the LPGA Tour and carded four more top-10 results.
Despite a stellar rookie season, Saso has struggled to remain in contention for most of 2022, turning in just four top-10s. However, the rising star who modeled her swing after Rory McIlroy is finishing out the season strong after a slew of missed cuts and 30th to 40th place finishes.
At the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship, Saso went into the final day six shots back of the lead. She went on to shoot a 6-under 66 to rocket up to second place, just one shot behind winner Jodi Ewart Shadoff. Saso went on to tie for eighth at the BMW Ladies Championship for her first consecutive top-10 finishes since January. Saso’s game is heading in the right direction and some time spent in one of her home countries may be just what youngster needs.
The 21-year-old joined the JLPGA during the extended 2020-21 season and quickly proved to be a contender. She finished runner up in seven events and added 14 additional top-10s. Saigo has had a breakout season in 2022, winning five of her first 10 tournaments of the season and finding three additional top-10 finishes in between.
Buoyed by her stellar start to the season, Saigo has risen to No. 24 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, the best ranking of any current JLPGA player and just two spots behind LPGA rookie Ayaka Furue. However, Saigo has struggled to climb up the leaderboard since her most recent win in May, producing just three top-10 finishes in her last 11 starts. This week will be the perfect opportunity for the JLPGA’s rising star to turn things around and get back to her winning ways.
If Saigo wants to contend against the LPGA’s best at the TOTO Japan Classic, she’ll have to go low. Furue, the JLPGA defending champion, shot 16-under par to win the tournament in 2021. So far, Saigo’s best score this season was a 15-under par 269 at the Amundi Evian Championship where she tied for third. Saigo will have her work cut out for her, but the JLPGA’s newest star should be up to the task.