Thongchai’s fit to be Thai


AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – Thai golfer Thongchai Jaidee has some extra incentive to make the cut in his first Masters: A potential audience with the king.

No, not Arnold Palmer. A REAL king, with a crown and everything.

If Thongchai plays well at Augusta National, it just might earn him an audience with Thailand’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

“This was my dream before. I wanted to play, but I had no chance,” he said Wednesday after a practice round at Augusta National. “I was very happy for my country, very proud for my country. It’s news in my country.”

Thongchai (his name is pronounced TONG-chi JI-dee) is a former paratrooper who only turned professional after his military service ended seven years ago.

But he’s been in the top three on the Asian Tour money list each of the last five years, finishing first in 2004 and 2001. He became the first Thai-born player to win on the European Tour when he won the Malaysian Open in 2004, and defended the title the following year.

He’s also played in the other three major championships, finishing 52nd at last year’s British Open and 74th at the U.S. Open in 2001.

He played in the last two PGA Championships, missing the cut each time.

But none of that compares to playing in the Masters.

The Masters often gives exemptions to foreign players who wouldn’t qualify otherwise, and Thongchai had hoped to get an invitation last year. He didn’t, and was thrilled to learn two weeks ago that he was being included in this year’s field.

Thongchai, 36, is only the second Thai-born golfer to play at Augusta, and the first since Sukree Onsham in 1971. Sukree also played in 1970, but didn’t make the cut either year.

“This is a very, very big tournament,” he said. “No. 1 in the world.”

So big that he used to go to bed early, sleep for a few hours and then wake up at 2 a.m. to watch it live.

“This is the tournament he wants to be in,” said Posom Meeposum, Thongchai’s caddie.

“He’s enjoying himself right now.”

He certainly looked at home Wednesday. Though he’s only 5-foot-7 and 168 pounds, he’s got a smooth, compact stroke that gets surprising distance. He repeatedly outdrove playing partner K.J. Choi, and his tee shot on the 460-yard, par-4 No. 9 left him an easy wedge shot to the green.

“He can hit it,” Posom said. “Most people are surprised because he is a small guy. But he packs some power.”

Though he was stunned at how big the crowds were Monday, he looked as if he’s gotten used to them. He stopped several times to chat with fans, and he smiled and twirled his driver when someone yelled, “Nice shot!” as he walked off the No. 8 tee.

It helps that he’s got his own cheering section. Charlie Niyomkul, an Atlanta restaurant owner who catered Vijay Singh’s champions dinner in 2001, is related to Thongchai by marriage, and he’s brought his whole family for the week.

“It’s historical for us,” Niyomkul said. “The whole country is very proud of what he does.”

Thongchai grew up in Lop Buri, about 95 miles north of Bangkok. His father worked in a factory and his mother in a hospital, and the family didn’t have much money.

Thongchai played soccer, the national sport, when he was young, and was good enough to represent his province. But his family lived near a golf course, and many of Thongchai’s friends were caddies there.

“I saw everybody having fun at the golf course, so I thought I’d try it,” he said.

Only problem was, he was only 12 then and didn’t have money for clubs.

One of his caddie friends scrounged up the very old, very worn head of a Wilson 3-iron. Not the whole club, mind you, just the head. But Thongchai improvised, attaching the head to a bamboo stick.

He played with that one “club” for two years.

“I have one club for 10 (shots),” he joked. “Bunker, pitching wedge – all one club.”

Thongchai’s friends kept their eyes out for other discards, and he eventually got a full set of clubs. He didn’t have formal training, tagging along whenever his friends were allowed to play the course.

“I wasn’t good,” he said. “I just tried.”

He finally got the chance to hone his game when he joined the army at 18. Though he served as a paratrooper and made over 50 jumps, he also had plenty of time to play golf. He had a solid amateur career, winning the individual titles in both Singapore and Thailand in 1998, and had quick success when he turned professional the following year.

He finished in the top 10 in five of the 14 tournaments he played his first season. Two years later, he was first on the Asian tour money list. In 2002, he tied for second at the BMW Asian Open, which also counts on the European tour.

He’d like to play on the PGA Tour next year. First, though, there’s the Masters.

“It’s an honor for me,” he said. “I never thought I’d have the chance.”

And if things go well, maybe he’ll have a chance to meet the king.

AP-ES-04-05-06 1800EDT