Column: Thai golfer with several names and more than enough game mixes it up with golf's best
PITTSFORD, N.Y. – I'm thinking of changing my name to Justin Timberlake.
And why not? People in Thailand change their names for good luck all the time, or so I'm told.
That bit of knowledge was imparted cheerfully by Kiradech Aphibarnrat outside the clubhouse Friday at Oak Hill, where he had just signed for a 1-over 71 that left him 1 under for the PGA Championship and eight shots behind leader Jason Dufner.
His name, for example, used to be Anujit Hirunratanakorn, at least until he was 16. That's when Kiradech's family ventured to a monastery in northern Thailand for the renaming ceremony. Oddly enough, both his former and current names translate into English as "bright."
But in golfing circles, the charming, portly 24-year-old is known as a two-time Junior World champion, or more recently, the "John Daly of Asia."
"I played with him two times," Kiradech said. "He's a good guy said we swing very similarly."
The resemblance, however, doesn't end there. Kiradech shares Daly's go-for-broke course management style. Until a closing run of three bogeys in the last five holes, he was at 4 under and zooming up the leaderboard. What made the fall tougher to take was how well Kiradech recovered from an early bout of nerves.
"After four or five holes, my hands were shaking ... before every shot," he recalled. "Every time on Friday, you have to make the cut. I feel I cannot make any mistakes, that I have to be perfect."
For some of his golfing predecessors, that was quite literally the case. Most of the Thais who preceded Kiradech onto the European and Asian tours picked up the game after working as caddies, often with clubs they had to assemble from discarded iron heads and grips.
Kiradech, on the other hand, grew up comfortably and took up golf at age 8 after tagging along behind his father on the course. Every time there was a tournament, the two stayed behind to watch the trophies being presented. It didn't take long for the son to get his hands on a few of his own.
"My dad said if I play golf well, he will let someone else do my homework," Kiradech recalled, smiling mischievously.
As if he needed further reinforcement, Kiradech won the Junior World Championship in consecutive years, 2003-04, then turned pro in 2008. He won a mini-tour event the following year and his first big-league tournament on the Asian tour in 2011. His real breakthrough, though, came in March, on the European Tour at the Malaysian Open, a tournament shortened to 54 holes due to thunderstorms — a victory Kiradech admitted he might not have secured had it gone the distance.
It wasn't just nerves working against him again, though Kiradech acknowledges those were frayed. There was also the fatigue of lugging his large frame up and down the hills on the course in steamy weather. He's listed at 5-foot-10 and 210, but his agent, Pimporn Rojsattarat, pegs his weight at closer to 260.
"I don't work out a lot. I just try to play good golf. You don't have to have a good body for that," Kiradech explained, with typical good humor, while playing last weekend in the Bridgestone, where he tied for 40th.
He didn't set himself a target score for Oak Hill, but after Kiradech shot 68 in the opening round, he candidly admitted the weight of expectations settled across his broad shoulders.
"I was quite proud," he said. "I was able to see myself on TV. A friend called and told me, "They're talking about you on the Golf Channel.'"
After Friday, unfortunately, not so much.
Starting out in a fuchsia shirt and white pants, Kiradech was hard to miss. But the small gallery he garnered while shooting 34 on his first nine had dwindled to his manager and a handful of family members not long after he made the turn. He hit just two fairways on the back, and like the John Daly of America, tried powering his way out of trouble.
"My game is very good, but I have to learn more," he said.
By that, he presumably meant patience, a quality that Pimporn recognizes doesn't come naturally to 24-year-olds. Especially someone like Kiradech, who spent a year or two racing cars before giving up the circuit to grateful tears from his mother.
"Sometimes," said Pimporn, who represents more than three dozen promising Thai golfers, "we have to instruct the caddie to slow Kiradech down.
"He is like many young men," she added. "He likes to do everything fast."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at www.twitter.com/JimLitke