As a 21-year-old rookie, few had predicted Tavatanakit would be in contention at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California, earlier this month.
Despite a surging Lydia Ko behind her, Tavatanakit held her nerve to win by two shots and become the first rookie champion since Juli Inkster in 1984.
With well-wishers reaching out to her in the aftermath of her victory, Tavatanakit admits it’s “been really weird” coming to terms with the fact that she’s actually won a major.
“Obviously, [to] get a major champion behind my name, it still sounds a little odd to me to think like: ‘Oh, I’m actually a major champion,'” Tavatanakit — who was ranked No. 103 in the world beforehand — said.
“I’ve dreamt for that moment for the longest time, but to actually have that under my belt is just still kind of a weird feeling. It’s just my rookie year, I didn’t expect this to come any time at all.”
Hard work paying off
Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, Tavatanakit started playing golf as a teenager.
“As a Thai player, I grew up watching Ariya [Jutanugarn] and Moriya [Jutanugarn] play,” she explained. “They have always been inspired and an inspiration to all the young players in Thailand, so I just feel so honored to be recognized as one of the people who would make the game of golf in Thailand grow.”
After moving to California to play on the golf team of the UCLA Bruins, she also enjoyed a prodigious amateur career, including being the lone amateur at the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open.
She turned professional in 2019, winning three times in eight tournaments on the Symetra Tour — the developmental tour of the LPGA — as well as earning the Gaëlle Truet Rookie of the Year award.
Her time on the LPGA Tour in 2020 proved tougher — she cracked the top 10 just once in 14 competitions.
However, the addition of coach Grant Waite to her team helped change Tavatanakit’s fortunes.
“At the end of the year, we understood the plan we were going to do, and she had a choice of going back to Thailand, spend time with her parents or stay here in the US and work on our game and get ready for the Tour,” Waite told CNN Sport.
“And she decided to do that. Now, that’s a lot for a young woman of 20, 21 years old to do that. But she chose to do that because she felt like she owed that to her career and she could do it. And we worked pretty hard on that off season.”
The hard work paid off, with Tavatanakit finishing fifth in the opening LPGA Tour event of the 2021 season and then claiming her first LPGA Tour win and maiden major victory at the ANA.
Although she led throughout the final day, her victory wasn’t straightforward. A course-record equaling 62 from New Zealand’s Ko certainly tested Tavatanakit.
Describing herself as a “goofball” on the course, Tavatanakit’s primary emotion was one of relief after holing the final putt at the ANA Inspiration and completing the famous jump into Poppie’s Pond that all victors make.
“It was just like a relief feeling where: ‘Oh my God, I held this thing for so long and a lot of self-control, a lot of self-awareness,’ which is a whole mental grind out there.
“And when it all just happened and it was just a big relief, like someone just pulled out a 100-pound dumbbell off my chest; it’s that feeling is so light.”
Moving from Thailand to the US can’t have been easy, but for Tavatanakit, it proved an emotional release.
“Ever since I moved here to America, I really feel I have freedom to be myself. I feel the free spirits running inside my system a lot more than when I was in Thailand,” she explains. “And in that being said, it kind of meant just being who I am and not afraid to express my feelings, my opinions, my emotions and just be kind.
“You don’t have to necessarily say certain things to try to fit into society or you don’t have to be certain ways to get acceptance from people.”
The world No. 13 is the third longest driver on the LPGA Tour, with an average driving distance of 283.786 yards, prompting comparisons between Tavatanakit and the big hitting Bryson DeChambeau, who is arguably revolutionizing men’s golf.
She is not making any comparisons herself but admits it’s flattering to hear that people think she can change the landscape of women’s golf.
“I remember probably two, three years ago, just a sudden thought, I was like: ‘Oh, I want to make an impact to the game of golf, to women’s golf. And I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I really just want to make an impact.’
“And I really think in a lot of ways, not certainly how far I hit the ball. I show to a lot of girls that anyone could do it out there. You don’t have to be world No. 1 to win. You just be yourself and keep working hard, keep dreaming and just be inspired by all your dreams.”
Tavatanakit now has her sights on winning a golf grand slam — winning all five majors at the same time.
Talk about an inspiring dream.