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Tavatanakit takes fast track - and surprising road - to the LPGA

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – If everything had gone according to plan, Patty Tavatanakit would be in North Carolina this week preparing for two weeks of the LPGA Q-Series in her bid to earn status on the LPGA tour.

It didn't work out that way. It went much better.

That's why the 20-year-old Thai from UCLA is chasing her other hobby in New York. A foodie at heart, Tavatanakit has an Instagram account she calls ''eatunderpar'' and already has posts from Joe's Pizza, Liberty Bagels and The Big Szechuan Cuisine.

She had reason to celebrate.

Tavatanakit is two weeks removed from securing her LPGA tour card with alarming ease, and she might have been on the LPGA even sooner if not for a recent change in regulations. She was the only three-time winner on the Symetra Tour, a feat that used to come with an instant promotion. It went away with the creation of the Q-Series, consecutive 72-hole events at Pinehurst that determines who gets cards.

That's where Tavatanakit hoped to be when she turned pro in June after the NCAA championship. The late start gave her about three months to try to finish in the top 35 on the Symetra Tour money list and qualify for the Q-Series. That was her goal.

''I didn't have a good sophomore season, so I didn't have a high vision of myself shooting all these numbers,'' Tavatanakit said. ''But you know how things happen when you least expect it? That's probably why this all happened.''

What happened was a blazing debut.

After a tie for 34th in the U.S. Women's Open in her pro debut, and a tie for 14th in her first start on the Symetra Tour, she finished second and then won her next two tournaments. She won her third tournament in her eighth start, coming from six shots back with a birdie-birdie finish for a 62 and winning a playoff.

Tavatanakit was Rookie of the Year, finished No. 2 on the money list in 11 starts and earned an LPGA card to avoid another trip to Q-Series.

At least this time, she would have wanted to be there.

A year ago, Tavatanakit was among 11 top amateurs invited to Q-Series. She was coming off a summer in which she tied for fifth in the U.S. Women's Open at Shoal Creek to be low amateur, and she contributed two points in the Palmer Cup.

She wasn't ready to leave UCLA. She began her sophomore season by closing with a 63 to win the Annika Invitational in the fall. She was runner-up in her next event. Her heart wasn't in turning pro just yet, and it showed.

Of the top five college players at Q-Series, Tavatanakit was the only one who didn't make it.

''I didn't want to go,'' she said. ''It was weird timing. Me being at Q-Series taught me to be sure, to be committed, to anything I do in life. I wanted to go back to L.A. when it was raining and cold. I wish there was a cut, but there wasn't. I had to play eight days. It was the worst two weeks of my life.''

Being back in Westwood didn't make life any better. Golf was a struggle. She wasn't winning. She wasn't even contending.

''I had my worst finishes,'' she said. ''It's a college event, the competition wasn't as strong, and I still managed to finish out of the top 20. When you're in college, half the girls are not going to turn pro. I put a lot of pressure on myself.''

She finally won again at the NCAA regionals, but the Bruins crashed out at the NCAAs, and so did Tavatanakit, tying for 43rd in medal play.

And then she turned pro, and before long it seemed like she couldn't lose.

Funny game.

Meanwhile, 98 women are teeing it up this week at Pinehurst No. 6, including college stars Sierra Brooks and Albane Valenzuela. It's different this year. The LPGA now gives college stars a pass into the second stage of qualifying, not directly to the final Q-Series stage.

It's a reminder for Tavatanakit of how unhappy she was playing golf, and how happy she is that it turned out the way it did.

''I'm glad I didn't make it,'' she said. ''You never know what would happen. I probably would have turned pro right away and forced myself to be committed to this. But I don't think I would have played like how I did this summer. I need to be down low to realize how golf is important to me and how much it takes to climb back up.''

The Symetra Tour was ideal to teach her how to travel, use her time wisely and learn to be a pro. And even a short stint gave her time to explore new restaurants, though the UCLA foodie kept the posts to minimum at the final event.

It wasn't the pressure – she had locked up her card by then – but the location. When it comes to eating, Daytona Beach is not Manhattan.

''I did post some stories, but yeah, nothing that great here,'' she said. ''The beach is pretty.''

Doug Ferguson is a golf writer for The Associated Press.