The Honda LPGA Thailand, one of the country’s most well-known sporting events, will return to thrill fans this week with its ninth edition at Siam Country Club Old Course in Pattaya from Feb 26-March 1.
Seventy participants — the top 60 from last year’s money list and 10 exempt players — will be vying for the winner’s cheque of US$225,000 in the $1.5 million tournament.
Leading the challenge are past champions Anna Nordqvist (2014), world No.2 Park In-Bee (2013), Tseng Yani (2011 and 2012), Ai Miyazato (2010) and No.5 Suzann Pettersen (2007).
Also in the field are No.12 Choi Na-Yeon, who won the season-opening Coates Golf Championship in Florida, No.6 Michelle Wie, No.10 Lexi Thompson and No.25 Paula Creamer.
There are seven Thais in the tournament: LPGA members Pornanong Phatlum, Ariya Jutanugarn, Moriya Jutanugarn and Thidapa Suwannapura, and amateurs Budsabakorn Sukapan, Sherman Santhiwiwatthanaphong and Paphangkorn Tavatanakit.
Palakorn Somsuwan, managing director of organiser Channel 7, said that in the past, although there were a lot of obstacles including political and economic problems, the tournament still enjoyed great support from fans.
Because of that, the LPGA Tour has extended its partnership with Channel 7 for another five years from 2015-2019, he said.
“We have tried to stage the tournament to meet the highest standard and to please world-class golfers,’’ Palakorn said.
The event has played a key role in Thailand’s golf development as young players have been given chances to play against the world’s leading stars, he said.
Virada Nirapathpongporn was the only Thai who qualified for the inaugural edition in 2006 through her LPGA ranking.
Since then, more Thais have earned spots in the tournament thanks to their rankings.
Palakorn said this year’s edition will be much more impressive because concerned parties had more time to prepare the tournament.
“The country is peaceful now so we have had more time to organise and promote the event,’’ he said.
“We have increased public areas and the number of shuttle buses for fans. For fans who watch it on TV, they can watch it in HD.”
Pitak Pruittisarikorn, COO of Honda Automobile (Thailand), said the success of the past eight editions was illustrated by the number of big-name players and huge crowds.
The company will continue sponsoring the event and recently signed a new three-year contract until 2017, he said.
As for the course which will host the event for a seventh time, Prasertchai Phornprapha from Siam Country Club said that everything is in place according to international standards and ready to welcome the players and spectators.
Some changes have been made to the course to make it more challenging for the players, he said.
“The most difficult holes are the ninth, 17th and 18th,’’ he said. “In fact, every hole is tough if you miss the fairway. Big hitters have an advantage but you must keep the ball in the fairway.”
Prasertchai said he is happy that his course has played a role in helping promote golf and the country.
“I think this is the biggest women’s golf event in Asia with an audience of about 45,000 last year,’’ he said.
Asked about his favourite to win the title, Prasertchai said Thompson has a strong chance.
“From my experience, big hitters have won here many times and Thompson has the potential to win,’’ he said.
Virada, now a coach at the Thailand Ladies Golf Association, said that because of tough course conditions and a strong field, it was not easy to say who would win.
“The ones with more experience on this course will have an advantage,’’ she said.
LPGA rookie Ariya, who blew a two-shot lead with one hole to play to lose to Park In-Bee in 2013, said she and her older sister Moriya were looking forward to the tournament.
“This is a great tournament for us and all Thais,’’ Ariya said. “We will do our best to make fans happy.”