CHONBURI, THAILAND | Each time upon speaking with Thailand’s Ratchanon Chantananuwat, aka “TK,” he seems to be too good to be true. A quote factory, he is unbelievably mature for 15.
Asked during last week’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship where he sees himself: “I'd be around 25 on the golf course and around 7 outside the golf course.”
Asked about his first-ever tournament: “I lost my first-ever tournament … that inspired me more than anything I've ever done in my life. That inspired me to win. I did, the next month. I won my first event when I was 4½ years old. That winning feeling has been an addiction since. That's what gets me up in the morning.”
Does he get distracted by all the attention? “I love attention, really. But I think it's just from experience. For me, it's just been like a gradual learning experience.” He knows that this attention and the number of cameras are only going to increase.
He acquired the moniker TK on account of the “in-family” nicknames of his parents, dad (Tara) and mom (Pitchara). He started golf at 3½, followed his dad everywhere and won the second event he played.
“As an amateur, the only thing you're really playing for is world-ranking points, because for me, I don't get any money. The only thing I get is pride and that winning feeling.”
Ratchanon “TK” Chantananuwat
TK recalls his first meeting with David Leadbetter, the world-renowned coach: “I met (David) Leadbetter when I was 9 years old. It was in one of his indoor golf centers (in Bangkok), with the school team, actually. Then I went to see him and played a round with him a couple days later. Then, went to see him in the U.S. And we've been in touch since. He actually texted me about my round yesterday (after the first round). I haven't had a lesson in quite awhile. But yeah, we still keep in touch. He's a great guy.”
Leadbetter in an email recalled: “I met TK on one of my visits. He was special and reminded me of Ty Tryon at that age. I have worked with him off-and-on since then: in Orlando and through online videos. His Dad is pretty influential in his life; caddy (and) part-time coach … but he is a seriously talented kid, long – amazing short game and putter and just loves the game. He is very dedicated, and between him pushing himself and his Dad, I have tried to warn the family of burnout. So far it’s working and his playing record is amazing.”
Yet, Leadbetter also thinks TK may be on the right path.
“Thongchai Jaidee mentors him, so hopefully he will get balance in his life. He’s talking about going to college, which I think will be good for him, but sponsors are offering crazy money, so we will see. TK is a great kid, very polite and personable; speaks fluent English as he goes to an international school (Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok). Definitely he has star quality and he has no fear, (and has) a wise head on young shoulders.”
A wise head on young shoulders, indeed.
There is so much money floating around these days that it is easy to lose one’s head and perspective. Not TK. Has he thought about turning pro?
“We have,” he said. “But now it's like, no. I just really want to go to college. I don't see myself turning pro any time soon. Like financially, I think we're ready to travel for the foreseeable future where I don't think it would be desperate for me to turn pro. So, I'll probably go to college. I doubt I'm going to do four years.”
While turning pro can wait, he has his goals clear. “As an amateur, the only thing you're really playing for is world-ranking points, because for me, I don't get any money,” he says. “The only thing I get is pride and that winning feeling.
“The world-ranking points are my priority. There's obviously two world-ranking points – amateur rankings, which I'm trying to get to No. 1 (he was 12th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking), and Official World Golf Ranking (340th), where I'm trying to get to the top two of the country because those two people go to the Olympics. (He stood sixth among Thais in the OWGR.) If I can make it by 2024, that will be great. If not, 2028. I’d better be there.”
In April, just one month after having turned 15, he became the youngest winner on one of the major professional tours when he claimed the Trust Golf Asian Mixed Cup on the Asian Tour. He shot 65 in the final round to beat another young star, a then-19-year-old who, at age 20, has won twice on the PGA Tour: Tom Kim.
At 15, playing competitively alongside one’s idols would be a dream for any golfer. But TK already has done so, including at the LIV Golf Invitational Thailand event. This week, he competed against the best amateurs in the Asia-Pacific region. After a 67-68 start, TK faded on the weekend into a T13 finish, seven strokes behind winner Harrison Crowe of Australia.
“It's such a big difference,” TK said in contrasting his amateur tournaments with his professional starts, before adding, “I'm not going to compare them (pros) to the amateurs because these (amateur) guys I'm playing with, they're going to be there in the future.
“What I saw playing with the major winners had such a big influence on me, (and that’s) why I'm playing good this week. The thing that I've taken away most is putting on the long putts. They don't give a damn how far it is, from 5 foot to 45 feet. They're trying to make everything, and that's just kind of the mindset that I'm sure I've been trying to develop.”
He added, “Someone said to me, actually, we can both hit good shots; he (2011 Masters winner Charl Schwartzel, with whom he played) can hit great shots, I can hit shots just as good, but their bad shots are much better than mine. That's the difference. I think that's why they're there. And I'm not.”
Brutal but honest. And he wants to get there.
At the beginning of the week of the Asia-Pacific, he said, “There's so much good talent here, like within the top 50. I don't think the rankings really reflect who has the best chances.”
Then, at the end of the week, when he did not win in Chonburi, he added, “… every time you fall down, you get up and go forward.”
He already is looking at the future. Maybe he is the future. Remember the name: Ratchanon “TK” Chantananuwat.