RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – When 25-year-old Jack Nicklaus won the 1965 Masters Tournament, he finished nine strokes clear of the field and set a new 72-hole scoring record. Afterwards, Bobby Jones, the tournament’s co-founder, marveled at the way the Golden Bear dominated Augusta National Golf Club.
"He plays a game with which I am not familiar,'' Jones famously said about Nicklaus.
The same could be said about Patty Tavatanakit’s performance this week at Mission Hills Golf Club.
The 21-year-old from Thailand has led the way since Day 1 at the ANA Inspiration, using her distance to overwhelm the golf course. The LPGA Tour rookie ranks ninth on Tour in driving distance, and this week, has averaged 326 yards off the tee. Throughout Saturday’s round, Golf Channel’s Judy Rankin marveled at the places Tavatanakit placed the golf ball. Tavatanakit is playing the course in a way that Rankin, the winner of the 1976 ANA Inspiration, has never seen before.
“Looking at it that way, it is kind of a different course,” Tavatanakit said, reacting to Rankin’s amazement. “I can get to some of the pins a little easier with shorter clubs. The par 4s all day, just as long as I've had is 9-iron and then 7-iron.”
Rankin wasn’t the only one left in awe. Tavatanakit’s playing competitor on Saturday, Shanshan Feng, was surprised to see how the game has evolved since she last competed on tour in 2019. Feng was wide-eyed as she watched Tavatanakit not only send her tee shots sailing past Feng’s, but also make the necessary chips and putts needed to score.
“I was actually more impressed with how accurate she was,” Feng said about the rookie. “In the past if you were a long hitter, you’d expect them to hit less fairways than we do but now, they actually hit it long, and they're accurate, and they hit greens, and they're able to get up and down, and everything is good.”
Tavatanakit took a one-stroke lead into the weekend and on moving day extended her lead to as many as six. She suffered two bogeys over the closing stretch to card a 5-under par, 67. She leads by five strokes with 18 holes to play.
And that further adds to Tavatanakit’s challenge of winning a first major title. Inbee Park, a seven-time major champion, who won last week by five strokes, says the larger Tavatanakit’s lead increases the more pressure she will feel.
“If you're leading by one or two, anything can happen in golf,” Park said. “But if you're leading by five or six and if you don't pull it off tomorrow, just don't feel that good. So, I think that's the pressure that she has to deal with tomorrow.”
But it isn’t the first time Tavatankit has opened up a large lead on a field. She won three times on the Symetra Tour in 2019. In back-to back-weeks she won by a collective 10 strokes.
This week marks her fourth appearance at the ANA Inspiration. In 2020, in her first stint as a rookie on the LPGA Tour (2020 rookies are also rookies this year), she finished T-64. Twice before she competed as an amateur, which made her more comfortable, and therefore more aggressive off the tee. Since turning professional, she’s amazed even herself at how much distance she has picked up at Mission Hills. Saturday, she hit a lob wedge into the 385-yard, par-4 first hole.
“With the length that I have, some of the lines you had to take it a little different, and seeing it enough, I've hit it the furthest I've ever hit here,” Tavatanakit said about her return to Mission Hills.
Over the last three days, Tavatanakit has looked incredibly poised, calm and confident. Saturday, she allowed herself a few moments of excitement as she extended her lead at the top of the leaderboard. That, no doubt, came at the instruction of her mental coaches, Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott of Vision54, who have been on-site with her this week.
“There is a lot of self-awareness going on out there today,” Tavatanakit said. “I was getting excited and I know that. I acknowledged that. I did everything I can to keep it a little bit calmer, because I know I'm getting excited. Just bring that down to the normal level. Just keep on playing. I think I did that really well today.”
Tavatanakit has a chance to write history on Sunday. With 18 holes to play, Tavatankit leads by five at 14 under par. Dottie Pepper set the 72-hole record of 269 at 19 under par in 1999. In 2000, Karrie Webb won by 10 strokes at 14 under par. She also has a chance to join Ariya Jutanugarn as the only two players from Thailand, male or female, to win a major.
Just like Nicklaus’s victory in 1965, a win by Tavatanakit would signal a new era in the women’s game. She represents the all-around athlete; a player who puts a premium on her physical as well as mental fitness, has a surgical short game and a mystifying long game. Patty Tavatanakit is the whole package.
And she plays a game with which many have never seen.