Golf: Pornanong and Ariya lead growing Thai presence

Thai Pornanong Phatlum fist bumps her caddie after a good shot. She is tied for third alongside Norway's Suzann Pettersen and knows success will spark more interest in the game back home.
Thai Pornanong Phatlum fist bumps her caddie after a good shot. She is tied for third alongside Norway's Suzann Pettersen and knows success will spark more interest in the game back home.

These days, the sight of a Thai name near the top of the weekend leader board is no longer a rarity on the LPGA Tour. Yesterday was no different with Pornanong Phatlum putting herself in contention at the HSBC Women's Champions.

The world No. 34, her country's highest-ranked player, shot a five-under 67 and is joint-third at the Sentosa Golf Club. Her 137 score is one back of co-leaders Jang Ha Na (66) and Lee Mi Rim (67).

Pornanong, 26, and Ariya Jutanugarn (tied-25th on 142 after a 69) may be the only two Thais in the 62-woman field but the kingdom's presence is growing.

In 2005, there was no Thai golfer on Tour. This year, with eight earning status through Qualifying School, that number will hit a record 13.

While Pornanong and Ariya, 20, have won on the Ladies European Tour, an LPGA Tour title has proved elusive for Thailand - the 2012 HSBC Brasil Cup, which Pornanong won, was an unofficial event.

Nevertheless, that has not deterred them. Pornanong, who finished tied-10th in Singapore in 2013, told The Straits Times: "I have to keep improving my game. That way I can inspire people more and bring more people to the field."

Support from within the country has increased in recent times. The Thai LPGA was started in 2008 and organises between eight and 10 tournaments annually to cater to the growing number of pro golfers.

From just three in 2006, there are currently more than 100 female professionals, noted former LPGA Tour player and Fox Sports Asia golf pundit Virada Nirapathpongporn, 33.

She added: "(The improvement in Thai women's golf) comes from role models like Pornanong and Ariya. Companies come in to support and this leads to more events."

Interest from local media has also swelled. The flagship US$1.6 million (S$2.2 million) Honda LPGA Thailand event is into its 10th edition and more than 180 accredited media personnel covered last week's tournament.

In a nation obsessed with football and kickboxing, that has translated into more kids picking up golf.

Said Ariya: "They come to watch us and are inspired to start playing."

The standard at the amateur level is also flourishing. Thailand won its first Asian Games gold in the sport at the 2014 Incheon Asiad, as the women's team defeated favourites South Korea.

Of that trio, Budsabakorn Sukapan and Benyapa Niphatsophon, both 18, have earned their LPGA Tour cards for the 2016 campaign.

Noted Australian world No. 16 Minjee Lee, who was the top amateur before she turned pro in 2014: "Thailand are doing well. They found something that works for them."

Nothing causes change quite like winning though. South Korean Pak Se Ri's two Major wins in 1998 inspired an entire generation and has led to her country's dominance of the women's game.

Pornanong hopes to light a similar spark. She said: "I feel that everyone can win (LPGA tournaments), so Thai players can also win.

"If I win, they (other Thai players) will believe they can win as well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Pornanong and Ariya lead growing Thai presence'. Print Edition | Subscribe