BANGKOK • Thailand hailed Ariya Jutanugarn as their new sporting hero yesterday as she finally secured her place on top of the world rankings, a week after being wrongly named world No. 1.
The 21-year-old erased that disappointment when she sank a 25-foot birdie putt in a play-off on Sunday to take the Manulife LPGA Classic and ensure a fairy-tale finish to a rollercoaster week.
That win in Canada came a week after the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) said Ariya would take over the top ranking from Lydia Ko, only for her to be informed when the rankings were published a day later that there was a miscalculation and that she was still 0.01 points behind the New Zealander.
The LPGA Classic win put her elevation to No. 1 beyond doubt and it was duly confirmed when the new rankings were released on Monday, sparking celebrations back home.
Thailand has a long golfing history but Ariya is the first Thai, male or female, to reach the top of the world rankings.
Pictures of a beaming Ariya - known by her nickname May back home - were emblazoned across most Thai newspaper front pages yesterday.
"May is world's No. 1, she has made history for Thai golfers," read the headline of Thairath, the country's largest selling newspaper.
Much of the coverage focused on the financial sacrifices Ariya's family made so she and her older sister Moriya, the world No. 46, could turn professional.
Ariya first showed an interest in golf at the age of five when her father opened an equipment shop at a Bangkok driving range.
Worried she might distract customers, Ariya's dad gave her and Moriya some clubs to play with. From then on, the sisters were hooked. As they progressed through their teens, the family sold their house and car to raise enough funds.
It was a gamble that paid off. Ariya has won some US$3.9 million (S$5.4 million) in career earnings while her sister has racked up US$1.6 million.
Many Thais also left messages of support on social media after Ariya's No. 1 spot was confirmed.
"You have written a new chapter in Thailand's sporting history," wrote one Facebook user.
"You have won the hearts of all Thais."
Inspired by her success, many young Thai girls have been taking up golf, hoping to follow her footsteps into the international arena.
Asked what she would advise young players, Ariya said: "I think, follow your dream and never give up. That's the key for me."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, ASIA NEWS NETWORK/THE NATION