Thai golf prodigy Atthaya ‘Jean’ Thitikul, 15, carded an even-par 71 to hold a share of the lead with 17-year-old Korean Yunji Jeong (67) after the second round of the inaugural Women’s Amateur Asia-Pacific at Sentosa Golf Club in Singapore.
Koreans occupied four of the top seven places as in-form Ayean Cho (68) and Boston College star Lois Kaye Go (67) of the Philippines shared third at five-under, one ahead of Hae-ran Ryu (70), Oklahoma-based Yujeong Son (68) and Japan’s Yuna Nishimura (69).
Malaysia’s Natasha Oon (72), New Zealand’s Wenyung Keh (72), joint ninth at one-under, China’s Yifan ‘Kristine’ Ji (71), tied for 15th at one-over and Singapore’s Callista Chen (72) were their countries’ leading performers.
After leading with an opening 65, Atthaya – who only turned 15 on Tuesday – continued to sing, dance and joke with experienced Thai caddie Roongroj ‘Yod’ Boonsri as she again played nerve-free golf with the casual air of a youngster just enjoying the game.
Despite only missing one green in regulation on the front nine and sinking a 10-foot birdie putt on the par-five fifth, the Thai bogeyed the third and seventh after three-putts on both. She fell back to four-over with a bogey at 12 before regaining her lead with birdies at the par-five 16th and the par-three 17th, where she hit her tee-shot to nine feet.
“I’m feeling really good, but today the location of the holes is so hard. I had a great comeback. I saved par on 15 and that gave me confidence and I made birdies on 16 and 17 and really came back. All the things went so good, only the putter was not really good on the first nine holes,” said Thitikul, who won the SEA Games individual and team gold medals in Malaysia last August.
A month earlier in Pattaya, Atthaya had Boonsri on the bag as she became the youngest player to win a Ladies European Tour event. Boonsri has worked with Thai stars Boonchu Ruangkit and Prom Meesawat, and LPGA Tour players Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn, and the experienced caddie is equally effective with his teenage charge.
“His imagination is the same as mine. He’s funny and relaxed, and apart from the shots, we don’t talk about golf,” Atthaya smiled before being asked what songs she sings to herself when playing. “I just sing Thai songs, a lot of songs!”
The shy, soft-spoken Jeong, who wears thick-rimmed glasses, joined Atthaya in the lead with her fourth birdie of the day at the 17th in a bogey-free round over the 6,456-yard New Tanjong course. Jeong will play with good friend Cho and Atthaya in the final group on Friday.
“I’m happy to not make any bogeys, but I’m not satisfied because I was struggling with my putting,” said Jeong, who also birdied holes one, seven and eight. “If I putted well, I could have shot seven-under or eight-under. I had so many chances.”
The confident Cho, also 17, was even whining about her performance after also rueing some missed birdie opportunities.
“The score is not bad but I missed many, many birdie chances. Most of my iron shots were accurate, to 12 or 15 feet. If I was lucky, I got a birdie and if not, an easy par. I only missed two or three greens and I’m just a little disappointed with my putting,” said Cho, the top-ranked Korean in the field at 34th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
Cho has a lot of experience in amateur and pro events in Korea and abroad, and was the top amateur in the LPGA Tour’s New Zealand Women’s Open last October, when she also won the New Zealand U19 Championship.
Last month, she won the Danny Lee Springfield Open in New Zealand and finished runner-up in the Australian Women’s Amateur, and believes her experience will hold her in good stead for the final two rounds.
“I still believe I can win. I’m just one off the lead. I’m very confident,” said Cho. “I’ve been lucky enough to participate in many pro events inside and outside Korea, so I feel comfortable at a huge international event like this. I won’t be nervous playing in the final group.”
The bubbly Oon, 16, also has experience of LPGA Tour events after playing in the last two editions of the Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia and was happy to remain in the top 10 – especially as her parents thought she may not even make the cut, which came at eight-over.
“Before this, my parents thought, are you going to make the cut?! They were stressed, but I knew I was pretty safe,” smiled Oon.
The Malaysian chipped in for birdie on her opening hole on 10 and also birdied 16 but bogeyed 11, 15 and 17, the latter after hitting her tee-shot into the water.
“I feel a little disappointed today, but if I think back, there were a lot saves so it could have gone worse. My approach shots were good but my putting wasn’t as good as yesterday.”
With four out of six starters making the halfway cut, the Malaysian team has much to be proud of.
Callista Chen, 19, continued to lead the local charge as the highest-ranked Singaporean in the field shot a second successive 72 to share 17th place and stay on course for her target of a top-20 finish.
“It has been quite a solid couple of days. I gave some away but I also had a few good breaks out there, so I can’t complain,” said Chen, who hit the event’s first-ever tee-shot off hole one on Wednesday.
“If they push the tees forward on one or two par-fives, I’m thinking of being a little more aggressive on the longer holes and wedge a couple closer. Hopefully I can cut a few more red numbers and finish under-par for the event.”
The halfway cut for the top 50 and ties came at eight-over-par and 53 players will play in the final two rounds. The field started with 83 players representing 18 nations, with 48 players aged 18 years or under.
The winner will earn invitations to both the ANA Inspiration (29 March-1 April) at Mission Hills Country Club in California, USA, and the Ricoh Women’s British Open (2-5 August) at Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club in Lancashire, England, as well as next week’s 11th HSBC Women’s World Championship, also at Sentosa Golf Club.
The Women’s Amateur Asia-Pacific championship has been developed by the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation (APGC).