Lilia Vu came out firing on a windy day in Thailand. The former UCLA standout began the day six back and birdied two of her first three holes. After carding a string of five consecutive birdies in the middle of the round, Vu took the lead after a birdie on the par-4 15th over local favorite Natthakritta Vongtaveelap, an LPGA rookie who was playing the Honda LPGA Thailand on a sponsor exemption.
Vu never looked back.
“Today I basically just blacked out and tried to birdie every single hole,” said Vu. “If I didn’t, just move on and try again.
“Got into the scoring tent and didn’t know what I shot.”
Vu, 25, who was making her debut at the Honda, carded a bogey-free 64 on Sunday to finish at 22 under and clip Vongtaveelap (71) by one stroke to win her first LPGA title. Former World No. 1 Atthaya Thitikul finished two back after a closing 68.
Vu hit 11 fairways and 11 greens and needed only 21 putts Sunday, pouring in a lengthy putt for par on the 17th to maintain the lead.
“I knew I was going to win,” said Vu. “It was just when.”
A host of big names finished in a share of sixth, including current World No. 1 Lydia Ko, Nelly Korda, Leona Maguire and Jin Young Ko, who also shot 64.
Jin Young, who suffered from a severe wrist injury last season, says meditating helped her greatly over the offseason. Thailand marked the first time Ko has recorded four rounds in the 60s at a tournament since the 2022 Amundi Evian.
She’ll be defending her title next week in Singapore.
“I cried a lot last year in front of my parents,” Jin Young said, “but, yeah, golf is a lot of ups and downs so we have to focus on my game and try to get better then better. I think it works.”
Lydia Ko, who won last week in Saudi Arabia on the LET, said her putting wasn’t as strong in Thailand.
A bogey on the second hole and a double-bogey on the fourth made it all the more difficult for 20-year-old Vongtaveelap, who earned her LPGA card through Q-Series last December and was playing her first tour event as a member.
“I need to practice more on playing against the strong wind,” she said.
Clutch par putt by @TheLiliaVu on 17 to maintain her lead by 1!
— LPGA (@LPGA) February 26, 2023
Vu earned $255,000 for her victory, taking her career earnings to $1,177,769.
After finishing in the top 3 on three different occasions last year and not hoisting a trophy, a frustrated Vu changed her approach.
“Feels really good to get it done,” she said. “I feel like I put a lot of pressure on myself at the end of last year, and during the off-season I kind of just changed my mindset. Like I always knew I was going to win, I just got to let it happen.
“The more you hold onto something, I feel like it gets farther away. I came close a lot towards the end of the last season, so I was just going to have fun and play my game and it would eventually work itself out.”
During her first year on the LPGA in 2019, Vu made one cut in nine starts and earned $3,830. The winningest player in UCLA history, with eight titles, considered hanging it up and going to law school.
Vu’s mom, however, convinced her to stay the course.
“I was in a really negative mindset, even my rookie year out here,” said Vu. “I didn’t feel like I belonged. Felt like every shot was life or death. I would look at the ball and set up and wouldn’t know where I was going to go because I was so nervous.”
Vu lost her card and found herself at an Epson Tour event in early 2020. She’d just been to visit her ailing grandfather before she left and he told her in Vietnamese, “Go play well. Do your best.”
Shortly after they returned to California, he died.
“It just really hit me that I was in a bad spot with my golf,” said Vu, “and the last thing he ever said to me was ‘play well.’
“Like out of all the things, he’s like struggling and he was thinking of me. I think that’s what I think about every day.”
Vu opened 2023 with a share of third at the Aramco Saudi Ladies International. U.S. Solheim Cup captain Stacy Lewis gave her a book earlier in the week with a note inside that said good playing. As a former top-ranked amateur who has represented the United States on numerous occasions, Vu loves team events. She has a picture of a past Solheim Cup team up on her wall as part of a vision board.
Lewis, so impressed by Vu’s play, predicted last year that Vu might not even need a pick to make the team.
Before leaving for Saudi Arabia, Vu admitted that she almost had a mental breakdown, thinking that she’d had all this time to prepare, yet didn’t feel that her game was sharp enough.
“And I was wrong,” she said.