BELLEAIR, FLORIDA | Atthaya Thitikul, the 19-year-old phenom and current No. 1 player in the Rolex Rankings, walked into player dining at Pelican Golf Club on Tuesday like a pro-am contestant taking a day off from work. She smiled and said hello to everyone in sight, thanking the uniformed security guards at the door, and asking the service staff at the buffet line how their week was going so far. The youngster might not be all that well known, even among golf fans, but with charisma to burn, she’s a sports superstar in the making.
She also has a new award, one many assumed was coming but became official today. Thitikul, who goes by her nickname Jeeno (pronounced Gino), was in a pitched battle with Hye-Jin Choi for the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award heading into the Pelican Women’s Championship outside Tampa.
Those who pay attention to such things might remember Choi from the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open where, as a 17-year-old amateur, she held the lead so late into the final round that people reached out to Catherine Lacoste, the only amateur ever to win the U.S. Women’s Open way back in 1967. When Choi dunked her tee shot in the water on the par-3 16th at Trump Bedminster with the president and his entourage watching from a skybox 20 yards away, Lacoste turned her phone off and sent a blank email to USGA officials with the subject line, “not yet.”
Choi played in her native South Korea for a while after that. Now, at 23, she is an LPGA Tour rookie with a résumé including everything but a victory. She had six top-10 finishes by June 2, including a third in the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles. A T5 at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and a runner-up at the CP Women’s Open followed. In total, Choi entered this week with 10 top-10 finishes, the kind of year that would normally make her the runaway rookie of the year.
But that’s not what happened. Jeeno rode onto the LPGA Tour like Brando on a Vincent Black Lightning. The teenager from Thailand – who speaks great English and hasn’t stopped smiling since she got here – had a T4, a T8 and a win before the first of April.
Those who have followed her saw this coming. She now holds the record as the youngest winner of a professional event, having captured the Ladies European Thailand Championship on the LET at 14 years, 9 months and 3 days. Then she went to the Ladies European Tour as a 17-year-old where she won four times and captured the Order of Merit and Player of the Year titles.
A quick trip through Q Series got her onto the LPGA Tour where her impact was immediate. Thitikul won in her fifth start, at the JTBC Classic, picked up a second win at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship and has 15 total top-10 finishes this season. In the fall Asian swing, she became only the second teenager in history, man or woman, to reach No. 1 in the world. The first was Lydia Ko, who was once the model for preternatural maturity and magnetism. Now Thitikul holds that title.
“One thing that I really want to do – no matter where I am, whether it’s No. 1 in the world, No. 2, 3, 4, 5, 100, 1,000 – I want to be the same person,” Thitikul said. “I want to be the same as before, not changing myself. I want to have fun, not really taking golf too seriously. I don’t want to think about myself like a superstar or act like I’m No. 1 in the world.
“I play golf because I want to take care of my family,” she added. “I want to feed my family. Whatever I am is fine. Ranking is not that important to me.”
Choi viewed things differently. “When I first joined the tour, I did want to be rookie of the year,” Choi said three weeks ago in Korea. “But as the year went on and I played with all the other rookies who are doing very well, it motivated me to want to do my best. I wouldn’t say it’s really about rookie of the year. When other rookies win, I think that just really motivated me.”
Observers braced for a battle. This week at Pelican Golf Club would determine the rookie-of-the-year race. Choi could win and take the lead, while Thitikul, who hasn’t been out of the top 10 since the first week of September, could put another decent week together and not only be the top rookie and world No. 1, but make a run at Lydia Ko for Rolex LPGA Player of the Year.
Then, just like that, it ended with a whimper. Early on Wednesday, an email arrived announcing that Hye-Jin Choi had withdrawn from the Pelican Women’s Championship. No reason was given.
Before the first shot was fired in the penultimate event of the year, the first major award of the 2022 season was over. Your 2022 LPGA Tour rookie of the year is Atthaya Thitikul.
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