One of my favorite dark horse stories is Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat. If you’ve been following this blog, you know his story.
He won the 2013 Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur putting him at the top of the Order of Merit on the Asian Tour. That got him into the PGA Tour’s first official Asian tournament, the CIMB Classic…on the very same Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club he’d won on earlier in the year.
But it gets better than that: he finished one stroke back at T3. That gave him the satisfaction of not only a great tournament on the PGA Tour, but also gave him a top-10 ticket into the next week’s McGladrey Classic. He wasn’t able to take advantage of it due to his tournament schedule, but he will always remember that he earned one; another marker in his player DNA.
As his World Ranking has slowly risen, he came into this week as the No. 67 player in the world, not, unfortunately, the 64 he needed to get into this week’s Accenture Match Play Championship at the Golf Club at Dove Valley in Tucson, Arizona. But as his life has gone for the last year or so, Tiger, Phil and Adam, aren’t entered, so the their potential spoils now fall to Nos. 65, 66, and Kiradech at 67.
He took time to visit the media center on Monday and some fascinating cultural stuff came out. For example, as a 16-year-old, he changed his name from Anujit Hirunratanakorn, a Thai tradition:
In Thailand we believe in luck. And I can say when I was a kid in my own name I win a lot in my career. But when I train for first year, I didn’t have success at all. We went to the temple and we believe if you got the right letter you get more luck. And after I change I believe I got a lot of luck. Plus I win a couple of events and had success last year, as well.
But then, his start in the game came right out of Americana, even though he was thousands of miles away:
I start playing golf about 8 years old with my dad. Every day after school I have to follow him to the range after he work. And I’m just a kid, don’t like to do homework. And my dad saying if you love to play golf, he will help me. So I just go straight away to hit the balls.
I didn’t like golf my first couple hours, but different like football, the ball just keep moving, you can kick it. You can [hit] several tennis balls, but a golf ball just stand and you just hit the ball, it’s tough, interesting, that’s why I love it.
And, you know, I think we forget just how old Tiger has become. Seems like he was a kid making his debut at Riviera just a couple of years ago. But he went on to become the idol of another little kid in Thailand:
It would be Tiger, the best golfer in the world. Last few week I was like 54 in the World Rankings. I hope to be 64, right on the number, to play with Tiger. Even I lose, but fun to play with the top players. And you get a lot of experience from him.
Now doesn’t that just sound like a little kid looking to live a dream? Tiger won’t be there to help him realize it, but he will get an equally daunting first-round opponent in Henrik Stenson, the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
And while he has limited experience in match play, he still feels like he has a game suited to the task at hand:
Well, I have a lot of distance. And I make a lot of birdies, I attack the pin. So the match play you can make a lot of birdies and you can make a lot of mistakes. But if you make birdies, it’s good for the match play.
Did you hear any fear or reticence or reservation in that assessment? Neither did I. And you know what? There’s not:
I have played with Stenson last year, after he got on fire. He won Dubai and the FedExCup. Such a good player.
But I love to play with the top players, because in match play everything happens, you have nothing to lose, and try to play best as I can. And the result, I’m happy with the result. So whether I win or lose I’m happy to be here.
But luck also plays a part in match play:
Yes, you need to be lucky in the match play, and this type of golf. You hit it on, doesn’t mean you can win the match. It’s tough to make par. I can say if you play 18 par you might win the match.
He was staying with friends in Phoenix after finishing T67 when he got the news that he was in:
Last week I was spending a week in LA, with my friend’s house. And Friday night — no, maybe Thursday or Friday night was big surprise because I thought someone going to pull out and the numbers would be 69 or 70 enter the event. But 67 is the last position to enter. So I’m excited.
The thread through this post is joy. In almost everything he said, there was joy burbling away in the background.
And that’s the same thread that was running through everything that Jason Allred said after his T3 finish in LA. And he was very clear in everything that he said that it was this joyous, fun-loving attitude that shifted everything he’d ever been as a player. It dragged him up out of anonymity and graced him with a playing experience he will never forget.
Kiradech will be trying to prove that joy and huge success has no international boundaries.