Thai teenager is an amateur golfer with a professional game

RATCHANON Chantananuwat is only 15 years old, but the Thai amateur golfer has no plans to turn professional any time soon, despite finishing top at a professional event and making it to the leaderboard at several Asian Tour events.

His decision is certainly making a difference in terms of prize money. As an amateur, he doesn't qualify to earn a single cent. If he had changed his status to pro, however, he would have pocketed nearly US$500,000 to date. About US$63,000 would have come from his third-placed finish at the Asian Tour's The Singapore International tournament at Tanah Merah Country Club in January.

Ratchanon, who is the youngest male golfer to win at a major Tour event when he claimed the Trust Golf Asia Mixed Cup in Thailand in April, wants to live a normal teenage life just like his friends.

Speaking to The Business Times at the Laguna National Golf Resort Club last Friday (Oct 21), Ratchanon said: "I want to enjoy what other kids of my age like - relax, meet friends and go on outings. I want to enjoy my studies, especially my favourite subject Physics, as well as Economics."

Ratchanon - a firm favourite for the Trust Golf Singapore Junior Masters at Laguna's Masters course, set to take place from Nov 28-30 - has rubbed shoulders with the world's best golfers at regional and international events, but he wants to keep his feet firmly on the ground.

His nickname is TK - a combination of his parents' initials. An only child, Ratchanon first picked up golf at the age of three when his father, an avid golfer himself who runs a clothing business in Thailand, introduced him to the sport.

Ratchanon first practiced with plastic clubs, and soon switched to actual ones within months. He took part in his first competition when he was five years old. His hero and role model is Thongchai Jaidee, one of the greatest golfers that Thailand has produced.

"(Thongchai) took a special interest in me, and ensured my golf was on the upward trajectory with his tips and advice. Whenever he is in Thailand, I make the two-hour trip to Lopburi (province) to train with him and heed his counsel," said Ratchanon, who is fluent in English and knows a smattering of Chinese dialects.

Now 11th in the world amateur rankings, Ratchanon considers his previous playing experiences with South African Major winners Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen as "great learning lessons".

"I was amazed at their putting ability for they were reading the lines well and sinking putts from 10 to 20 feet with ease," said Ratchanon.

In his eyes, the current "perfect" golfer is Australia's Cameron Smith, with whom he had played at a tournament in Saudi Arabia.

"He has a fabulous all-round game fitted into a personality with strong mental strength. You saw how he won the British Open (at St Andrews in July). He was a winner all the way, while others stuttered and fell by the wayside because of pressure," said the teenager.

So how does Ratchanon himself handle pressure? "It's all about application, the ability to balance things, having a clear focus and understanding your motives. Everybody plays to win, but you cannot be on top all the time. Every tournament has different demands. Understanding and familiarising yourself with the course and players help a lot. You cannot allow yourself to be cowed by the field."

These days, Ratchanon's routine sees him handle schoolwork, morning runs, hours of gym training, and daily practice at the golf range. He also does yoga, which he says is a big help to relieve stress and improve his flexibility.

At an age when most of his peers would be watching golf from outside the ropes, Ratchanon does not just walk the courses with the greats of the sport but also outshines many of them. But with plenty of time on his side, he is in no hurry to make golf his career just yet.

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