Thongchai takes a path like no other to Presidents Cup
One stick took away the dreams of Thongchai Jaidee. Another stick allowed him to go places he never imagined.
The next stop on a journey that keeps getting better is the Presidents Cup, where Thongchai will be the first player from Thailand to compete in the matches.
The 45-year-old former paratrooper will be playing the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea with players like Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott, none of whom had to cut such a rugged path to reach such an elite stage.
“Guys come from all over,” said Bubba Watson, who struck up a friendship with Thongchai late last year. “But his story is pretty special.”
Thongchai was good enough in soccer to represent his province of Lopburi as a teenager, and he often played barefooted because “I did not have money to pay for those nice football shoes.” But one day a wooden skewer lodged into his foot, and that was the end of soccer.
It turned out to be a new start.
“Nobody knows where I would end up if I didn’t have that injury,” Thongchai said in an email. “But I believe that everything happened for a reason.”
He grew up in a two-story wooden house that had no kitchen, no shower or a toilet that flushed. It was next to a Thai Army base that had a golf course, however, and Thongchai found the head of a 5-iron that he fastened to a bamboo stick.
That was his introduction to golf.
“I don’t know exactly how far I could hit with a bamboo stick as I would do it in an open field,” he said. “I was hitting balls, or anything I could find, into the river, trees or even the crop field. All I can remember is that I lost many balls.”
The competition he faces at the 11th Presidents Cup is not intimidating. Even though he didn’t turn pro until he was 30, Thongchai has 16 worldwide victories, and he picked up his seventh European Tour win last week in Germany. He already is the first Thai to have played in all four majors — at the 2009 British Open, he finished four shots out of the playoff at Turnberry.
“Representing Asia in the Presidents Cup is a huge step for both myself and the golf scene in Thailand,” Thongchai said. “I hope this achievement will inspire not only Thai golfers, but the country as a whole. I am proud to say that I’m a Thai, and Thailand is now a part of this honorable event.”
The timing could not be better.
The Presidents Cup, which starts Thursday in Incheon, South Korea, is being held in Asia for the first time since it began in 1994. The International team has never had more than two Asian countries represented at any Presidents Cup. For these matches, it has four.
Anirban Lahiri became the first player from India to make the Presidents Cup team. Thongchai and Lahiri will be joined by Hideki Matsuyama of Japan and Bae Sang-moon of South Korea, who was a captain’s pick. Also playing is Danny Lee, who was born in Seoul but grew up in New Zealand and plays under the Kiwi flag.
“It’s a proud moment for me,” Lahiri said. “It’s also a proud moment for my teammate, Thongchai Jaidee, who has been quite a stalwart for Asian golf. I think it’s going to do a lot of good for golf in the region. The fact that it’s in Korea and in Asia for the first time and they’re going to have four — or four-and-a-half Asians, if I was to count Danny Lee — it’s going to be massive.”
It would help to have some competition, which is what these matches between the United States and the International team (all other countries except for Europe) have been lacking for the last decade. The Americans lead the series, 8-1-1, and the last four matches have been lopsided.
This U.S. team, without Tiger Woods for the first time since he turned pro in 1996, is stacked with five of the top 10 players in the world. International captain Nick Price lobbied for a reduction in matches — 30 matches this year instead of 34 — with hopes that it at least will be closer.
In some respects, South Korea is the perfect homecoming for Thongchai.
A pivotal point early in his career was in the Shinhan Donghae Open in 2001. He was leading the Order of Merit on the Asian Tour and shot 70 to make the cut, but realized that night that he violated a rule by moving his golf ball back to its original position after the wind had moved it ever so slightly. Because he had not addressed the ball, Thongchai should have played it from its new position. He informed a rules official the next day and was disqualified.
Thongchai went on to win the first of his three straight money titles on the Asian Tour, and he has been winning ever since.
“I’ve played a fair bit of golf with him over the years, and he’s tough,” Henrik Stenson said. “Every time you tee it up against him, you know it’s going to be a tough match, so I’m expecting him to do pretty well.”
Considering where he’s been — hitting balls with a bamboo stick, jumping out of planes in the Thai Army, being dropped in the jungle for survival training — Thongchai already has done more than he could have dreamed.