RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIFORNIA | Imagine you’re the new LPGA commissioner – a position that likely will be filled by the end of May. You probably feel good about what you saw this past weekend. Not only did you have a wonderful showcase of women’s golf with the Augusta National Women’s Amateur followed by the ANA Inspiration, you had companies such as IBM and AT&T featuring LPGA Tour players in their ad campaigns. Also heartening was the fact that those campaigns were all about gender equality, a hot topic in boardrooms everywhere.
Now imagine, new commissioner, that you’re courting one of those companies, or another Fortune 500 biggie such as Oracle or Amazon. You invite a chief marketing officer or maybe a CEO to a pro-am. Alas, that executive is likely a man. But assume he is a decent player, say a 3 or 4 handicap. If you pull strings and pair him with 21-year-old Patty Tavatanakit, the first rookie in history to make the ANA Inspiration her first LPGA Tour victory, you better have a sponsorship contract ready on the 18th green. Because no matter who he is, he’ll likely have been outdriven by 40 yards all day by one of the most engaging players in the game. And he’ll be sold.
Tavatanakit has it all. She should be the poster girl for the future of women’s golf – crazy long and super cool with a Justin Thomas club twirl and a putting stroke that would make Ben Crenshaw smile. In a part of the Coachella Valley that embraces its Old Hollywood heritage, Patty T, as she’s known informally, marched around Mission Hills with an Eastwood swagger and a Sinatra command. The Miles Davis sunglasses only added an air of mystery, one she doesn’t mind and, before last week, one she seemed to enjoy.
Three years ago, when she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, Alabama, and finished as low amateur, Tavatanakit played the first two rounds with So Yeon Ryu, who came into that championship as one of the favorites. Ryu didn’t know her. Almost no one did. But midway through Thursday’s first round, after Patty T consistently outdrove the group by between 20 and 50 yards, Ryu said, “Wow, that girl is really long.”
A similar thing happened last Tuesday. Tavatanakit showed up for a practice round she had randomly signed up to play with world No. 1 Jin Young Ko. They’d never met. After introductions and pleasantries, Ko hit a hybrid short of some fairway bunkers and was surprised to turn around and see her playing partner on the back of the tee with a driver. After scurrying out of the way, Ko watched with amazement as Tavatanakit blasted a tee shot that wasn’t close to coming down as it cleared the 250-yard bunker. Her eyes wide, Ko looked at her caddie and a journalist who had wandered onto the tee. Her expression said it all. Who on earth is this?
Nobody will be asking that after last week. In the first three rounds of the ANA Inspiration, on a Dinah Shore Tournament Course that everyone agreed was in the best condition in decades, Tavatanakit averaged 326 yards off the tee. On the fourth hole on Saturday, she hit it 360, prompting one volunteer to utter a holy profanity and say, “That’s the longest of the day by 40 yards.”
“She’s an amazing player,” said Shanshan Feng, who played with the former All-American at UCLA on Saturday. “I actually learned a lot from her.”
That’s saying something. Feng has 23 professional wins worldwide, including a major, the 2012 Wegmans LPGA Championship, and an Olympic bronze medal. But the 31-year-old said she learned a great deal about the future of the game this week.
“In the past I would say that if you’re a long hitter then maybe your short game is not as good. Or if your short game is super good, you’re not as long,” Feng said. “Now the girls are long, straight, have good short games; everything is good. So, that’s what I’ve learned. I would say that both technically and mentally, the (women’s game) has improved a lot.”
She looked at me for a couple of seconds, not quite a Ben Hogan death-stare but not a wink-and-chuckle Arnold Palmer look either.
It’s not just Tavatanakit. Jerry Foltz, who followed the leaders for Golf Channel all week, got an online message from a fan asking, “If you lined up Lexi Thompson, Anne van Dam and Patty Tavatanakit on the range, who is longer?” Foltz chuckled and said aloud, “Bianca Pagdanganan.”
He’s not wrong. You could throw Angel Yin, both Kordas and Brooke Henderson in there as well. The idea that the LPGA Tour is a peck-it-down-the-middle outlet where players get outdriven by their male pro-am partners every week has always been a myth. Patty Berg and Louise Suggs could slug it out there with anybody. But there never have been more bombers in the women’s game. And, as Feng pointed out, they’re bringing the rest of the game with them.
They’re also carrying a young-gun confidence and a lot of off-course depth. Tavatanakit is as smart and thoughtful as anyone in the game, the kind of person who can hold her own in almost any conversation. You don’t get many clichéd sound bites from her, which is refreshing.
So is her confidence. Last year, Patty T told me that as a young girl in Bangkok watching television at home, she pointed at Tiger Woods and told her dad, “That’s who I want to be.”
Saturday night, when she held a five-shot lead, I reminded her that Tiger was the ultimate closer, and asked if she was ready to add that to her résumé. She looked at me for a couple of seconds, not quite a Ben Hogan death-stare but not a wink-and-chuckle Arnold Palmer look either.
“Yeah,” she said. “I have that in mind.”