Thai golfers shine at Women’s British Open

Pornanong Phatlum, who has played on the LPGA Tour for nine years and never finished first in a tournament, didn’t win the women’s British Open last Sunday. But she won millions of hearts around the world.

Unheralded Pornanong challenged for what many consider the most difficult of golf’s four major championships until the next to last hole. Her spirited play as a relative unknown provided audiences with a Cinderella story, and millions of viewers were rooting for her as the underdog. Meanwhile, a Thai still stood in the winners’ circle at the tournament’s conclusion as 15-year-old Atthaya Thitikul won the amateur title.

“Phatlum’s strong run at Royal Lytham provides further evidence of a tidal Thai wave,” said the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Tour) website about the emergence of a talented corps of Thai golfers. Ariya Jutanugarn is the leading edge of that wave, earning the rank of world number one last week for the second time. Three years ago, no Thai had ever won an LPGA tournament. This year, three Thais have tasted victory on the tour.

In all, six Thai golfers made the cut at the British Open. Their strong performances at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club were a harbinger of Thai women arriving as a force in professional golf.

Although Pornanong had won nine tournaments on the Asian Golf Tour, two on the European Tour and finished second three times on the LPGA Tour, she was regarded as a journeyman golfer, never among the elite players of the game. At the British Open, however, her accurate driving and deft touch around the greens showed that she is as good as anyone when she plays her best.

Known among Thais by her nickname Waew, Pornanong caught spectators’ attention with her pink golf balls, pink club grips and colorful attire – and her cool and steady play while in the spotlight. Many commentators thought she would crack under the enormous pressure of a major, but she played bogey-free golf until late in the third round, having led or been tied for the lead from the start.

Pornanong told interviewers that she maintained her composure by singing Thai songs to herself as she strode down the fairways after each shot.

Tied for the lead with British golfer Georgia Hall with two holes to play on the final day, Pornanong’s drive off the 17th tee strayed slightly right, took a bad bounce and landed in a bunker. Royal Lytham is a links course, and those courses are designed to be punishing on any shot that is less than precise. Punching out of the bunker, Pornanong landed in thick rough that compounded her troubles. She ended up missing an easy putt for her only double bogey. That put her three shots behind with one hole to play. She finished at 15-under-par, for a four-day total of 273, two shots back for second place.

Hall was met after sinking her final putt by family members and a cheering British crowd that naturally viewed her as the hometown favorite. But Pornanong, whose family was watching her on television far away in her home province of Chaiyaphum, was not alone.

Ariya Jutanugarn was the first to step onto the green to give Pornanong a big bear hug, followed by all the other Thai golfers who competed that week. They all mobbed and embraced Pornanong in a show of sisterly love and respect.

Ariya finished the British Open at nine-under-par, tied for fourth place, while Thida Suwannapura finished at six under and tied for 11th.