TOKYO—Atthaya Thitikul took up golf as a sickly six-year-old to improve her poor health. Now she has joined Tiger Woods as one of the sport’s youngest world number ones.
Thai teenager Atthaya reached the top of the world women’s golf rankings this week after a stunning debut year on the LPGA Tour.
The 19-year-old from Thailand’s western Ratchaburi Province has won two tournaments on the US-based elite women’s tour and has 12 other top-10 finishes.
She became the second-youngest world number one in women’s golf history this week after New Zealand’s Lydia Ko, who was 17 when she first topped the rankings in 2015.
Atthaya also joined Ko and Woods in becoming the only golfers, male or female, to achieve the top ranking before their 22nd birthday.
“Being number one is pressure — I don’t know how long I’m going to be number one in the world, but at least it’s just a ranking,” she told reporters at the LPGA Japan Classic, where she shot a one-under par 71 on Thursday in her first round since rising to the pinnacle.
“But what you have to do is improve yourself a lot. No matter where I am — number one, 10, 20 or 100 — I’m just trying to improve myself and be myself every day that I play, as a person and as a competitor as well.”
Atthaya might never have taken up golf if her grandfather had not recommended spending more time outdoors as a way to prevent the frequent illnesses that affected her as a child.
He suggested playing either golf or tennis, and after watching videos of both sports, the six-year-old Atthaya thought that golf would be the least strenuous option.
Coming from a family of non-golfers, Atthaya had to push herself to succeed, but it did not take long before she was turning heads.
In 2017, at the age of 14 she became the youngest player to win a professional tour event when she triumphed at the Ladies European Tour’s Thailand Championship.
Unable to turn professional until reaching the age of 18, she honed her game as an amateur over the next three years.
After earning her LPGA Tour card at qualifying school a year ago, she wasted no time in rising to the top.
“I didn’t think I would be number one in the world that fast, and I didn’t think I would achieve this in my first year on the LPGA as well,” she said.
“Overall, I’m feeling great, feeling grateful that this has happened this year.”
Nicknamed “Jeeno”, Atthaya is the daughter of a car wash business owner father and a hairdresser mother.
She enjoys the life of a normal teenager, and her Instagram page is full of photos of her fishing, sightseeing, relaxing with friends and working on her game.
She prefers visiting the mountains of Chiang Mai to lounging on the beach, and describes herself as a foodie.
She says she tries not to take golf too seriously, and thinks having a bad round is “not the end of your life”.
“I’m the one who takes it relaxed, smiling,” she said in an interview last year about her attitude on the course.
“I always think taking things in a positive way is best for golfers. You play on the course for four or five hours and your brain is working hard already.”
Atthaya says she has struggled with other people’s expectations of her, but she has realised that “you should just be yourself” and play with freedom.
She is the second Thai player to top the women’s world rankings, after Ariya Jutanugarn, who was number one for 23 weeks between June 2017 and March 2019.
Atthaya is also the second player to reach the top ranking in her LPGA Tour rookie year, after South Korea’s Park Sung-hyun in November 2017.
Atthaya is trying to maintain a level head despite her rapid rise.
“Every day that you play golf, you can’t expect anything with it,” she said.
“You have to enjoy every single moment that you’re on the course because if you play bad today, you always have tomorrow.”