PATTAYA, THAILAND | The focus last week was so much on Atthaya Thitikul and the Thai challenge that it was easy to miss the tiny Ting-Hsuan Huang at the Women’s Amateur Asia-Pacific championship.
Yet at the end of the week, the tiny but compactly built Huang turned a four-stroke deficit with seven holes to go into a two-shot win at Siam Country Club. The victory earned passages to two major championships, the AIG Women’s Open and the Amundi Evian Championship, plus the coveted Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the Korean LPGA’s Hana Financial Services Championship.
There were 11 Thai golfers at the start of the week, and five left on Friday evening. Each had stars in her eyes when Thitikul’s name was mentioned. As did the organizers, led by Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A, the principal behind the WAAP.
Slumbers opened the week by saying, “We couldn’t have scripted it any better to have our inaugural WAAP champion, Atthaya Thitikul, reach No. 1 in the world this week as we bring the championship to her home country of Thailand for the first time. It’s a phenomenal achievement for Atthaya, and we could not be more proud of all she has achieved and the example she has set for all of the other players to follow.
“When you factor in the success of other previous competitors such as Yuka Saso in winning the (2021) U.S. Women's Open and Patty Tavatanakit in winning the (2021) ANA Inspiration, you can just see how huge the potential for women's golf is here in Asia-Pacific.”
When the week ended, the winner revealed that her idol was Yani Tseng, only the second woman to be world No. 1 for more than 100 weeks (for 109 consecutive weeks in 2011-13) and the youngest at 22 – male or female – to win five majors.
Shyly, Huang said: “Yani Tseng. Yeah, she’s my idol as well. She plays fantastic. She’s a fantastic player, yeah. I hope I can be like her one day. I played with her. Sometimes I practice with her.”
Huang and Tseng are from Taoyuan and sometimes play and practice at the same club back home.
Yet, she could in the years to come also be called the “Smiling Assassin.” She drove it straight, drilled the irons perfectly and putted beautifully.
When Huang did make an occasional trip to the bunker or readied for a tricky shot, she would whip out the yardage book, peeping out from her back pocket, the cover emblazoned with the name “Tiffany Huang,” to which she loves to be referred.
One such occasion came on the 12th, where she faced a buried lie in a bunker but came out beautifully to hole it from there. That was the shot of the week.
Yet, all that she said with a million-watt smile: “It’s very lucky. It was the divot (bad lie). I can’t imagine that.”
Nor could anyone, including Taimur Hassan, chairman of the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation, standing beside me. “This is one gutsy girl. This shot could turn the tide.” It did. The gap had come down from four to two and soon it would disappear.
Hassan added, “There is so much potential in Asia. Chinese Taipei has always been a powerhouse. Three nations – Nepal, Macau and Pakistan – sent a women’s player to the WAAP for the first time. Look what (India’s) Aditi Ashok did at Tokyo (where she finished fourth in the 2021 Olympics). Who knows what will happen next!”
“I was nervous, but I just played my game."
Back to the drama at Siam Country Club: Huang started the final day on even keel at 8-under with Thailand’s Natthakritta Vongtaveelap and Suvichaya Vinijchaitham and South Korea’s Jiyoo Lim but fell back with bogeys on two of the first four holes as Vongtaveelap birdied the second and eagled the third.
Huang fought back with birdies on Nos. 8 and 9, and Vongtaveelap replied with a birdie on the ninth to remain three strokes ahead with nine holes to go. A birdie on the 11th had all but put the bow on the salver for the Thai, who was four ahead and poised to become the WAAP’s second Thai champion.
Huang had other ideas. She also got some help from Vongtaveelap. The par-3 12th turned the tide and the momentum had swung.
Over the next six holes, Vongtaveelap suddenly was unable to supplement her huge drives with wedge and iron play of matching quality. Huang made key birdies on the 14th and 15th, pulling even with three holes to go. The Thai’s putter, too, had stopped doing her bidding.
Vongtaveelap missed the green on 16 and made a mess of 17, resulting in two bogeys. Huang parred but dropped a shot on 17, yet she was one ahead when they came to the 18th. The rain, which had held off all afternoon, arrived. Huang was close, but not home and dry.
Vongtaveelap had birdied the 18th during each of the three previous days; Huang had done so only on the second. The Thai was gunning to get to the green in two, but the rain put paid to those hopes. Yet, both had birdie chances.
Just as it had been for the two hours preceding the grand finale, Vongtaveelap missed and Huang holed her putt from inside 5 feet for a two-shot win.
The title had once again slipped from Vongtaveelap’s hands, a year after losing it to Mizuki Hashimoto. Yet, she smiled and hugged Huang warmly. They likely will be paired in more final rounds over the next few years.
“I was nervous, but I just played my game,” said Huang, whose English was halting but her game was so fluent.
Huang carries an impressive track record: fourth at the recent World Junior Girls championship; tied for third in individuals at the Queen Sirikit Cup; and in July 2022, she won the North & South Amateur, played over three courses at Pinehurst Resort; topper at 2023 Asian Games qualifiers and a bunch of top-10s at professional events.
Next stop: college golf at San Jose State in California.
Another global star is on the way from Asia.
Top: Tiffany Huang, down four shots with seven holes to play, battles back in the Women's Amateur Asia-Pacific.