The implications didn’t occur to them on Saturday in Korea. And rightly so. Atthaya Thitikul and Lydia Ko had a golf tournament to finish, a final round to play, and a trophy on the line. Thitikul enters the final round of the BMW Ladies Championship at 15-under par, leading by one shot over Ko. Both are winners in 2022 and both have been playing great all season. But beyond that, the big-picture inferences didn’t follow them to bed on Saturday night.
Thitikul, who has already won twice in her rookie year on the LPGA Tour and is leading the race for the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year, is in line to become the first teenager to reach No.1 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings since the player hoping to catch her on Sunday at Oak Valley Country Club: Lydia Ko.
The similarities don’t end there. Ko won her first professional event, the Bing Lee Samsung Women’s New South Wales Open, in 2012 at the age of 14. At that time, she was the youngest player ever to win a professional event on a recognized tour. Brooke Henderson nipped Ko for that youngest-ever title when she won an event in Canada, also at 14. But now the record-holder is Thitikul, who won the Ladies European Thailand Championship on the LET at 14 years, 9 months and 3 days.
In 2014, Ko won three times in her rookie year, celebrating her 17th birthday with a victory at Lake Merced in Daly City, California and capping the season with a broad smile and a third win at the CME Group Tour Championship. At the Rolex Awards Banquet that final week of the season, Ko accepted the Rookie of the Year award with a couple of self-deprecating jokes about the numerous caddies she’d run through. Everyone saw a superstar, inside the outside the ropes.
Fast forward to 2022. Thitikul, whose friends call her Jeeno (pronounced Gino), joined the LPGA Tour after winning the money title and Player of the Year on the LET. She made an immediate impact, winning the JTBC Classic presented by Barbasol in just her fifth start. She won again in September at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. Throw in 11 other top-10 finishes and Jeeno found herself, at age 19, in the No.2 spot on the Rolex Rankings, knocking on the door of the biggest year-end awards.
But it’s not just the scores and wins and youngest-ever records. Spend five minutes with Jeeno and you see the magnetism, the charisma and the preternatural maturity, traits not witnessed in a player this young since people were calling Lydia the female Arnold Palmer.
They’ll be together on Sunday in Korea – Thitikul poised to become the No.1-ranked player in the world and Ko shooting to extend her Race to the CME Globe lead – their games and personalities mirror images of each other. For Lydia, it has to be like seeing a younger version of herself. For Jeeno, it’s another round with a player she grew up admiring, one more step in career where everything is new and exciting.
“Atthaya shot 9-under on the first day. I totally did not see that (kind of score) around here,” Ko said. “But it seems like there’s always been a few low scores, so you hope that that's in your back pocket. I’ve just got to play my own game. The world’s best are here. There are so many players within reach, and with golf, who knows how many shots behind you can be and you’re still in position to be able to win.
“I’ve just got to focus on my game,” the now 25-year-old Ko said. “I don’t know what I’m going to finish at the end of today or how many shots behind, but it’s just – if I am confident and playing the best golf I can, and if somebody plays better than me, I can’t do too much about that.
“The key at the end of the day is I just play the best golf I can and kind of see what happens at the end of the week.”
Thitikul is taking the same approach. “I mean, to be honest, I don’t really care about the ranking,” the teenager said. “I don’t really care to be like No.1 in the world at all because I play golf. I want to take care of my family. I want to feed my family. Whatever I am (in the rankings) is fine. Even my family, they have a good life already. Ranking is not that important for me. For real.”
They even sound alike. Neither is thinking beyond their first tee shot on Sunday. But others are, especially those with a sense of history.
It’s going to be a heck of a finish.