Ki­radech Aphibarn­rat

Paul Ma­honey meets Ki­radech Aphibarn­rat to dis­cuss his pas­sage into the sport, his golf­ing idols and his pride at rep­re­sent­ing Thai­land on the world stage

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Thai­land’s num­ber-one golfer talks to GM

It’s a name that spreads fear into the hearts – but mostly the hands and eyes – of tro­phy en­gravers across the golf­ing world. There is only one player they are root­ing for in a play-off be­tween Ki­radech Aphibarn­rat and Ernie Els. Or Ja­son Day. Or Adam Scott. You get the point.

Thai­land’s num­ber-one golfer and world top-40 player knows his name makes him stand out, es­pe­cially when it ap­pears squashed onto leader­boards. It’s one of the rea­sons why peo­ple fol­low him.

“I think it’s be­cause my name is quite tough or it sounds funny,” says the 26-year-old from Bangkok. “But I love it when every­one tries to say it. It doesn’t mat­ter if they get it wrong, I know they are call­ing me.”

The thing is, Ki­radech Aphibarn­rat is not even his real name. Rather like the agent of ‘60s crooner Arnold Dorsey, who thought it would be a good idea to change the singer’s name to En­gel­bert Humperdinck – some­thing pre­sum­ably dreamt up half­way down the third bot­tle of Bollinger – Aphibarn­rat’s par­ents chose to im­pose the Thai tra­di­tion of chang­ing the name for good luck of their son, for­merly Anu­jit Hirun­ratanakorn. And no, that’s not an ana­gram of Ki­radech Aphibarn­rat.

“When I was 16 my mother sug­gested I change,” he says. “First, I did not re­ally be­lieve it but I just did it to make my par­ents happy. My mother chose my new name. In my head, I still think in my old name. All my friends still call me An (from Anu­jit). It’s my nick­name,” he says.

Aphibarn­rat has been mak­ing a name for him­self – and it’s not just his name or his game that is get­ting him no­ticed. He is built like a fridge or a rugby fron­trow for­ward. He weighs in at 16st 9lb but is just 5ft 8 and 1/2 inches tall. The half an inch is clearly im­por­tant. He’s a jolly fel­low – po­lite, charm­ing and good com­pany. He learned golf’s univer­sal lan­guage of English not in a school class­room, but from play­ing the game around the world and hang­ing out in club­houses and on prac­tice grounds.

“I didn’t pay enough at­ten­tion in school,” he says. He has grad­u­ated to flu­ent, nev­er­the­less. “I can’t read it as well, though,” he adds. His gen­tle de­meanour hides the fire in his belly. He’s trail­blaz­ing for Thai­land and Asia. He feels that pres­sure, too. “I have a lot of fans in Thai­land,” he says. “They all come to sup­port me when I play at home. They ex­pect to see more wins and Thai play­ers in Ma­jor Cham­pi­onships. All of their sup­port pushes me up when I have bad days. I feel a re­spon­si­bil­ity to rep­re­sent them.”

Aphibarn­rat has won three times on the Euro­pean Tour. His maiden vic­tory came at the 2013 May­bank Malaysian Open, fol­lowed by tri­umphs at the Shen­zhen In­ter­na­tional and the Saltire En­ergy Paul Lawrie Match Play tour­na­ment, which both came in 2015. “Win­ning a Ma­jor would be a brand new start for Thai­land,” he says.

He re­veals the boss of Singha, the Thai brewer, looks af­ter all the Thai play­ers with gen­er­ous spon­sor­ship deals. “He wants a Thai player to be a world star. We are work­ing hard to try to make it hap­pen. All the money he has spent, he does not want it back. He just wants one day to see a Thai player win a Ma­jor like Tiger and Rory.” Aphibarn­rat wants to be that break­through player. “Now I have the op­por­tu­nity, I try my best,” he says. “If I can’t do it, we will have a new gen­er­a­tion who will con­tinue and I be­lieve one day we can do it.”

Golf is still only an emerg­ing sport in Thai­land, and still ex­pen­sive. Aphibarn­rat was about six years old when he used to ac­com­pany his fa­ther to a driv­ing range. He had no in­ter­est in hit­ting balls. “I was into soc­cer like all the other kids,” he says. “I thought golf was a bor­ing old man’s sport.” But in­trigue even­tu­ally got the bet­ter of him. “One day, with noth­ing to do, I grabbed a club and tried to hit a ball. Three times. I missed ev­ery time. Then I thought: ‘Hmm, this sport is in­ter­est­ing’. If you want to kick a foot­ball, the ball is mov­ing, and it’s easy. But in golf, the ball just sits in front of you and you can’t even hit it. I think it’s more in­ter­est­ing.”

So he asked his fa­ther if he could try it. He played with a cut-down 7-iron for six months. He was asked if he wanted to play in ju­nior events, but the kid was happy to just hit balls af­ter he’d fin­ished his home­work. Even­tu­ally, he was per­suaded to en­ter a com­pe­ti­tion. “I shot maybe al­most 200,” Aphibarn­rat says. “My dad wanted me to sit and wait to see all the win­ners get their tro­phies. I was watch­ing them and I just wanted to get that tro­phy and all the ap­plause. I worked hard af­ter that. My first win was when I was ten. Then I just kept win­ning and win­ning,” he says. “I loved that I could play with my dad.”

“all of their sup­port pushes me up when i have bad days. i feel a re­spon­si­bil­ity to rep­re­sent them”

Once he com­mit­ted to the game, Aphibarn­rat found out he had a tal­ent for it. He won the Ju­nior World Un­der 15s Cham­pi­onship in 2003 and 2004. “By the time I was 15, I had won about 100 events in Thai­land and Asia,” he says. He went to col­lege to study golf man­age­ment and was on the gold medal team at the World Univer­sity Games in 2007. He turned pro­fes­sional in 2008 and claimed his first vic­tory in 2009 – the Singha Pat­taya Open on the Mercedes-Benz Tour by 11 shots. His first Asian Tour ti­tle was the 2011 SAIL Open, be­fore he grad­u­ated to play among his he­roes on the Euro­pean and PGA Tours.

“When I started play­ing golf at eight years old, 18 years ago, at that time Tiger was on fire,” Aphibarn­rat says. “All the kids had Tiger as their hero. I still like him now. I just wanted to be like him one day.” An un­ex­pected hero, though, is Lee West­wood. They had a pic­ture taken to­gether when Aphibarn­rat was 18. “Lee has al­ways in­spired me,” he says. “I have been watch­ing him since he reached the top ten in the world in 1998. Then he went down to out­side the top 200 and came back to be World No.1. The way he fought back, I loved that. He’s one of my he­roes. I have chat­ted to him a lot and now I have played with him a cou­ple of times.”

Aphibarn­rat’s physique and gung-ho style of­ten sees him de­scribed as Asia’s John Daly. So it is no sur­prise to dis­cover that the Amer­i­can is another of his he­roes. “Asia’s John Daly – I am happy with that,” he says. “He is one of the best play­ers in the world, a Ma­jor Cham­pion. Four or five years ago, I played with him in the Thai Golf Cham­pi­onships. We have sim­i­lar swings and we’ve got the dis­tance. He kept call­ing me the Sec­ond John. I think it’s great. Ev­ery time we meet, he is so chilled. I would love to be re­mem­bered for do­ing as well as he has.”

His home­land in­spi­ra­tion was Thongchai Jaidee. “When I was a kid, I saw him win lots of events. I never imag­ined I would walk with him on tour,” he says. “In 2001, Thongchai won the Asian Tour Or­der of Merit. I was sit­ting at home watch­ing and thought ‘one day I will try to do that’. In 2013, I did. Then I played in The Open be­side him. It re­ally was a dream come true.”

The re­al­ity is Aphibarn­rat’s suc­cess has made him a wealthy man, which makes his ob­ses­sion with cars and wrist watches eas­ier to in­dulge. “Watches and cars are toys for guys,” he says. “Ex­pen­sive, but I love to own them. Peo­ple keep telling me I can buy 20 watches but I can only wear one at a time, but when you see one in the box, it is some­thing more. The most I have ever spent on one is $200,000. I buy and sell them. Watches are like hand­bags for women. When­ever I show my wife a new watch, she wants a new hand­bag. So we are even!” He doesn’t dis­close how she got even when he bought a white Fer­rari. “There are only two white Fer­raris of my A430 model in Thai­land,” he says. “And maybe about 50 red ones.”

Be­ing a Manch­ester United fan, a red Fer­rari might have been more ap­pro­pri­ate. But Aphibarn­rat is not happy with the cur­rent style of play. Not gung-ho enough for him. “I want them to lose so they change man­ager,” he says. “I want Alex Fer­gu­son back. But I know it’s never go­ing to hap­pen!”

Maiden suc­cess: vic­tory at the 2013 May­bank Malaysian Open

With friend and idol Thongchai Jaidee

Some have la­belled Aphibarn­rat as ‘Asia’s John Daly’ – Ki­radech Aphibarn­rat is the third-high­es­tranked Asian in world golf (37), be­hind Hideki Mat­suyama (13) and Ben An (26). Last year, he be­came the youngest ever Asian golfer to win three Euro­pean Tour ti­tles (26 years, 10 days). That ac­co­lade was pre­vi­ously held by Ar­jun At­wal, at 34 years and 355 days. – The Thai bagged his first Euro­pean Tour win at the weather-af­fected 2013 May­bank Malaysian Open. His 54-hole to­tal was enough to take the tro­phy by one shot from Edoardo Moli­nari. – Aphibarn­rat waited more than two years for his next Euro­pean Tour vic­tory, which came at the 2015 Shen­zhen In­ter­na­tional in China. He won his sec­ond Euro­pean Tour ti­tle of the year at the Paul Lawrie Match Play at the Mur­car Links in Aberdeen­shire. – Aphibarn­rat has won five times as a pro­fes­sional, all in dif­fer­ent coun­tries: Thai­land, In­dia, Malaysia, China and Scot­land.

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