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Atthaya banners LPGA Japan Classic

OTSU, Japan (AFP) — A host of home favorites will be out to stop new world golf No. 1 Atthaya Thitikul when the LPGA tour returns to Japan this week for the first time since 2019.

Thai teenager Atthaya headlines the field at the LPGA Japan Classic, just days after becoming the second-youngest world No. 1 in women’s golf history after a stunning debut year on the elite tour.

The 19-year-old is only the second player under 20 to reach No. 1 — New Zealand’s Lydia Ko was 17 when she first topped the rankings in 2015.

Atthaya has triumphed twice on the LPGA Tour in 2022 and has 12 other top-10 finishes this season. She takes over at the top from South Korea’s Ko Jin-young.

A strong Japanese contingent including world No. 9 Nasa Hataoka and former major champions Hinako Shibuno and Yuka Saso will be aiming to stop Atthaya this week 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 No. 5 Minjee Lee, Tokyo Olympics silver medalist Mone Inami, and Japan’s Ayaka Furue, who won the Scottish Open in July.

Furue also 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.

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