Gold medalist Park returns to LPGA in Thailand (Feb 22, 2017)

The return home to Thailand for reigning Rolex Player of the Year Aria Jutanugarn is just one of the things to watch this weekend as the LPGA Tour begins its two-event Asia swing on Thursday with the 11th edition of the Honda LPGA Thailand.

The event at the Siam Country Club’s Pitaya Old Course in Chonburi, Thailand, also will mark the return to the competition for South Korea’s Inbee Park, who makes her first start on the LPGA since winning a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She missed the past six months after Rio while recovering from a left thumb injury.

The Honda LPGA Thailand boasts the strongest field of the season’s first three tournaments with 18 of the top-20 ranked players in the Rolex Rankings set to compete. The golfers will play for a total purse of $1.6 million, with $240,000 going to the winner.

Joining Park, who is playing on a sponsors’ invite, are top-ranked Lydia Ko or New Zealand, the Olympic silver medalist; second-ranked Jutanugarn; third-ranked Shanshan Feng of China, the Olympic bronze medalist; and fourth-ranked In Gee Chun of South Korea. Ko and Jutanugarn played last week in Australia, finishing in a tie for 46th and a tie for third, respectively.

Lexi Thompson, last year’s runaway champion of this event, is also in the field. Thompson won by six strokes in 2016 for her seventh career title on the LPGA Tour. She is the only American to win in the 10-year history of the event, and the victory allowed her to overtake Stacy Lewis as the top-ranked American in the world.

Taiwan’s Yani Tseng, who is also in the field, is the only two-time champion of this event, winning in both 2011 and 2012.

Jutanugarn, who is coming off a tie for third last week at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, nearly won the Honda LPGA Thailand when she was 17 years old in 2013. Jutanugarn led the field into the final round, but with a triple bogey on the 18th hole, she dropped into the runner-up spot, which is still her best result at the event. She is still the only Thai champion on the women’s elite circuit.

“I am ready for the Honda LPGA Thailand, which is a big tournament with a lot of world-class players,” Jutanugarn said. “I want to win the title after coming close once, but I won’t put extra pressure on myself. I will try to do my best.”

Park, the former world No. 1 and a 17-time LPGA winner and seven-time major champion, won this event in 2013.

“I feel really good,” Park said of her current health. “I haven’t felt much pain at all for the last couple of months. I didn’t touch a club after the Olympics for maybe four months. I started practicing in December, and obviously, with the injury, my swing has changed a little bit, so I’m trying to get that back to what I usually swung.

“I’ve had great results here in Thailand. This course really fits my eye. I really like to start the tournament with confidence obviously, and this tournament is a great event to test your game, so I love to be here.”

Every time Tseng plays in Thailand, she stops by a temple in Bangkok to pray. She also is in the field by way of a sponsors’ invite.

“It’s good to be back in this country,” Tseng said. “I’ve been coming here almost every year since I was an amateur at 15 or 16. I love this golf course. I’m just going to have fun and try to make as many birdies as I can.”

Through two events in the LPGA’s season-long Race to CME Globe, Brittany Lincicome and Ha Na Jang — winners of the Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic and the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, respectively — are tied atop the standings with 500 points apiece.