Golf’s history-making schoolboy from Thailand: Ratchanon ‘TK’ Chantananuwat
Like most 15-year-olds, Ratchanon “TK” Chantananuwat thinks about school, exams, and college plans.
But Ratchanon isn’t like most kids his age – he’s already a history-making amateur golfer competing against some of the top golf pros.
In April – five weeks after his 15th birthday – he made international headlines when he became the youngest male player to win a major Tour, claiming the $750,000 Trust Golf Asian Mixed Cup in his native Thailand.
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This month he is studying for important biology and economics exams, a stress he had to deal with to represent his country at the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Vietnam.
It’s a balancing act of terrifying proportions, but an unfazed Ratchanon has something to prove.
“It gets a little difficult at times, but I enjoy the challenge,” he told CNN. “I like to do well in both and prove all the doubters wrong.
“If you’re an athlete, apparently you can’t do well in school. I am trying to change that.”
The Asian Tour victory marked a new high point in the fledgling career of one of the sport’s brightest young stars. Ratchanon has had a sensational rise since – aged just 13 years and four months – in August 2020 he became the youngest player to make the cut in All Thailand Golf Tour history.
And incredibly, he came agonizingly close to winning an Asian Tour event even earlier, finishing third in his first international pro event at the Singapore International in January.
Ratchanon’s story about the origins of golf reads like a comic book. Having started playing with plastic clubs and balls at the age of three, TK – a nickname that referred to his parents’ initials – finished last in his first tournament when he was four years old.
“I saw the boy who got the trophy and I got really, really jealous,” Ratchanon recalled. “I didn’t know why I didn’t get one, so I was really upset. Then my dad had to explain to me how he won, so he got the trophy.
And so, after a month of intense training overseen by an equally competitive, golf-loving dad, he got his hands on the trophy on the next try.
At his first Junior World event a year later, motivational messages were engraved on seats at each tee. “Winners never give up and quitters never win” was one of the mottos that illustrates Ratchanon’s mentality and work ethic.
His father serves as his caddie as well as third coach, spending extra hours with his son to build on lessons from two other coaches. On non-school days, an already intensive practice regimen goes one step further, with the youngster spending anywhere from seven to nine hours on the course perfecting their craft.
Warned of exhaustion, Ratchanon begins to take occasional half-days off – to devote the time to tutoring, physiotherapy or fitness – but dismisses any suggestion of burnout.
“I don’t see it happening. I like to play golf. I like to practice,” Ratchanon said.
“Yes, it’s hard – it hurts and it takes a lot of discipline, but even just two months of super hard work to get that one good shot or just a good result, I think it pays off for me.”
And who better to guide Ratchanon’s ascent than compatriot Thongchai Jaidee, an Asian Tour legend with 20 professional wins to his credit. The 52-year-old icon has helped the youngster with various aspects of his game since their first meeting in 2019.
When Ratchanon wanted to learn his hero’s spinning chip, the pair practiced the technique six hours a day for the next three weeks.
“He’s helped me so much with my game. He’s a great guy,” Ratchanon said. “I think he just enjoys helping Thai golfers develop for the future of Thai golf.”
Thongchai has also helped shape the mental side of the teen’s game, helping him implement a routine to overcome performance drops under pressure. Now Ratchanon has a method to use in big moments: slow down, take a sip of water, and wave “without hesitation.”
When asked about the pressure of the “teen prodigy” tag and rubbing shoulders with the sport’s elite, the 15-year-old simply replies, “I enjoy it.”
“I don’t feel pressured… I’m not afraid to play with good people,” he said.
“Nobody really forced it on me and I’m lucky to have a lot of good people around me who will help support me and keep me in line.”
It’s an attitude that helps Ratchanon take things one step at a time. Not wanting to rush the leap into the professional game, he is focused on successfully completing school.
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Ratchanon already dreams of studying physics at a university in the US, keeping his golf balance. He likes to follow the example of Thailand’s Colin Morikawa and Patty Tavatanakit, who respectively graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA before tasting great glory.
“I’ve seen a lot of Thai players turn pro early, but now I think a lot of people know that going to university is worth it,” he said.
“If we turn pro, this is our life. We can’t really go back.”