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Thitikul foils Kang in playoff; Saso flounders in Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

Jan Veran - Philstar.com
Thitikul foils Kang in playoff; Saso flounders in Walmart NW Arkansas Championship
Yuka Saso of Japan hits her tee shot on the fifth hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship Presented by P&G at Pinnacle Country Club on September 25, 2022 in Rogers, Arkansas.
Andy Lyons / Getty Images / AFP

MANILA, Philippines – LPGA Tour rookie Atthaya Thitikul dispatched Yuka Saso early on, wrested control from at least a couple of fellow upstarts midway through, and withstood the challenge of a slew of others at the finish. She then outdueled multi-titled Danielle Kang on the second playoff hole to capture the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship for her second LPGA crown in Rogers, Arizona Sunday (Monday, Manila time).

In a topsy-turvy final round that had at least 15 players gaining a crack at the hotly-disputed crown, the 19-year-old Thai star picked herself up from a pedestrian frontside 36 with three birdies in the last seven holes and scrambled for par on the finishing par-5 18th she had birdied in the first two rounds that helped lift her past Saso for the lead.

But Saso reeled back with bogeys on Nos, 5 and 8 and bowed out of the title race with a backside 39 marred by a double bogey on No. 15 for a 76.

In contrast, Thitikul kept pressing on, her clutch par on the 54th hole and a 68 forced a sudden death as Kang posted the best 17-under total at 196 at the par-71 Pinnacle Country Club course in a flight ahead on a fiery 64 spiked by a spectacular chip-in eagle on the 18th.

But after Kang saved par from long range on the par-3 15th, the first playoff hole, to extend the match, the six-time Tour winner, including in the 2017 Women’s PGA Championship, came up short on her approach shot on the tough par-4 16th and chipped short.

Thitikul, on the other hand, hacked it out to within 8 feet and drained the putt to become the first player since 2017 to annex two titles in her rookie season.

Interestingly, she nailed it in the same fashion when she won the JTBC Classic in Carlsbad, California last March where she edged Denmark’s Nanna Madsen in a playoff.

Former world No. 1 Sung Hyun Park was the last rookie to win multiple Tour titles in 2017.

“On the second (playoff) hole, I had a chance to make a birdie because it was not that far. Then, in my mind, I just told myself, ‘do you best, even if it’s not going in. Just do your best,” said Thitikul, whose latest feat, worth $345,000, is expected to propel her to No. 4 in the world rankings.

Saso also did her best with 64-65 rounds to stalk Thitikul and was hoping to do better in the last 18 holes in a bid to erase the stigma of a string of forgettable finishes in the season about to end.

After Thitikul birdied the first hole to go 2-up, the ICTSI-backed Saso birdied the par-5 second hole and gained a two-shot swing on the former’s bogey to tie. But that was the best that the Japanese could muster in a stretch when slight mistakes could ruin one’s title drive.

For Saso made too many miscues from there, missing six fairways and 10 greens and though she ended up with 28 putts, she flubbed a couple of birdie and par chances from close range that dropped her out of the title chase. She wound up with a 205 and tumbled to joint 32nd worth $15,048.
Pornaong Phatlum, also from Thailand, battled back from five down to grab the lead with a six-under card after 12 holes. But the pressure to sustain her pace proved too much for her to overcome as she double bogeyed the 16th before birdying the last to shoot a 66 for fourth at 199.

Korean Chella Choi also fought back from four down to gain a shared view of the top with a five-under card after 14 holes. But like Phatlum, she cracked when the going got tough, dropping two strokes on No. 16 before likewise holing out with a birdie for a 65 for third at 197.

But it was more of a sorry setback for Kang, who broke down in tears, not for losing the crown but just for being there on a course where she launched her pro career in Sept. 2011.

“This place is really special for me, it’s the first time as a pro I ever played and I have a family here for 13 years,” said Kang, who also had to skip a number of events midway through the season due to health issues. “I think this event itself was like a huge win for me. It really didn’t, like obviously I wanted to win. But putting that aside, the result really didn’t matter as much as how I felt and what I felt coming into this event, leading up to this event.

For Thitikul, however, her latest exploit did matter, saying: “Yeah, I have to say that I really wanted to win. I mean, like when I play, go out and play every event, I think every players want to win the tournaments.

“It means a lot to me, to get my second win, because it seems like you prove that you can do it. Yeah, here it’s my second win and it’s really special for me.”

GOLF

YUKA SASO

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