Atthaya feels the pressure as LPGA returns to Japan

Thai teenager Atthaya Thitikul admitted to feeling the pressure Wednesday of being the new women's golf number one as she headlines the LPGA tour's return to Japan after a three-year absence.

The 19-year-old is only the second player under 20 to reach women's world number one – New Zealand's Lydia Ko was 17 when she first topped the rankings in 2015.

Days after taking over at the top from South Korea's Ko Jin-young, Atthaya will tee off at the Japan Classic and will be looking to win a third LPGA title of a stunning debut year.

"Being number one is pressure – I don't know how long I'm going to be number one in the world, but at least it's just a ranking," Atthaya told reporters on the eve of the tournament.

"But what you have to do is improve yourself a lot. No matter where I am – number one, 10, 20 or 100 – I'm just trying to improve myself and be myself every day that I play, as a person and as a competitor as well."

A strong Japanese contingent including world number nine Nasa Hataoka and former major champions Hinako Shibuno and Yuka Saso will be aiming to stop Atthaya at Seta Golf Course in western Shiga Prefecture.

The co-sanctioned event with Japan's JLPGA is being played over 72 holes for the first time, with 78 players competing for a $2 million purse.

The event was contested as a JLPGA-only event in 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Shibuno, known as the "Smiling Cinderella", is one of four Japanese players with LPGA membership teeing up this week.

She made her first appearance at the Japan Classic in 2019, just months after winning the British Open on her major debut.

"When I played this tournament in 2019, most members from the US were not familiar with me – I only knew some of them whom I saw on TV," the 23-year-old told reporters.

"However, I know most of the players for this year so I could say 'welcome to Japan' to them."

Also competing this week will be Australia's world number five Minjee Lee, Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Mone Inami and Japan's Ayaka Furue, who won the Scottish Open in July.

Furue won the Japan Classic as a JLPGA-only event last year.

For all the home interest, however, the spotlight this week will be on Atthaya, who finished sixth at the BMW Ladies Championship in South Korea two weeks ago.

"This is my first time being at number one and there's a lot of eyes on me," said the teenager, who turns 20 in February.

"I don't know if I'm going to play good or bad, but what I know is to try my best out there every time."

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