This week’s UBS Hong Kong Open boasts one of the strongest lineups in the event’s long and illustrious history.
The defending champion will be there, as will his predecessor. The European Tour Order of Merit winner is in the field, together with the world’s top-ranked Asian player, not to mention the current leader of the Asian Order of Merit standings. In all, no less than 10 Ryder Cup stars will be teeing off.
So why will many pairs of eyes be on a 17-year-old Thai with just two tournaments as a professional under his belt?
Because Chinarat Phadungsil is no ordinary player.
Already the world junior champion, he astounded experienced golf watchers earlier this month when, as an amateur, he won the Double A International in Rayong, Thailand.
He became only the third amateur ever to win a title in Asia and also entered the record books as the youngest winner in the history of the Asian Tour. At 17 years and five days, he eclipsed Korea’s Kim Dae Sub, who won the 1998 Korean Open, by 78 days.
Within days, Chinarat had turned professional and was teeing off against superstars like Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh in the HSBC Champions Tournament in Shanghai.
Boasting an immaculate game and flawless temperament, there seems no limit to what Chinarat might achieve, but this most unassuming of teenagers – who hit his first golf ball at the age of eight – is keeping his feet on the ground.
“Yes, I was surprised by my victory in the Double A International,” he says. “I never imagined that I could win a big tournament this fast. I just played my game without thinking about winning or breaking any records. I felt incredibly happy when I won – I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming!”
It was not just the fact that Chinarat won, but the manner of his victory.
After being invited to play on a sponsor’s exemption, he fired a superb final-round six-under-par 67 – including birdies at the last three holes – at St Andrews Hill (2000) Golf Club to catch leader Shiv Kapur before going on to beat the Indian on the second hole of the playoff.
Chinarat left a top-class field in his wake, including compatriot Thongchai Jaidee, the reigning Asian Tour number one, who finished a stroke back in third.
“After the first round, I wanted to break my putter because I missed so many putts but, after spending three hours on the practice green that day, my putting felt good and I felt I could be the champion in the playoff,” he recalls.
“After a birdie on the 13th hole, I felt good but then I fumbled and bogeyed the 14th. I missed a three foot birdie on the 15th but birdied 16, 17 and 18. That boosted my confidence. I did not feel any pressure in the playoff.”
The closer the game, the more Chinarat relishes the challenge. His world junior title was captured in similar circumstances in San Diego, California, last July.
After a 10-hour day on the famous Torrey Pines South Course, during which he had completed his third round and then rallied to catch the leaders in the final round, he still had the energy – and composure – to overcome Japan’s Yuki Ito on the first playoff hole and be crowned winner of the 15-17 age group.
Nerves, it appears, are for other players. Chinarat admits to being “excited” when he teed up in Shanghai in his first event as a pro, but adds: “After a couple of holes, that feeling was gone and I just played my game. There were no nerves. And I didn’t feel under any pressure because there was no cut, everyone was guaranteed four rounds.”
After the Rayong fireworks, Shanghai was more routine. Rounds of 72, 75, 74 and 74 gave him a seven-over total of 295 and a share of 57th place. Still, he finished ahead of some big names and collected his first professional earnings of US$14,500 – compensation for the US$47,250 he missed out on at the Double A International, where his amateur status prevented him from collecting the winner’s purse.
Turning professional, he agrees, was always a certainty. “It was an unexpected win in Thailand, but I’d always wanted to turn professional and it was only a question of when. After that win, I received a lot of advice from my father as well as my coach and we all felt confident that I should turn pro now.
“Yes, I need to gain a lot more experience, but the best way to learn as a pro is to play with the pros. Plus, it’s an opportunity that doesn’t come along that often.”
The UBS Hong Kong Open will be just Chinarat’s third tournament as a professional but already there is buzz going around the Hong Kong Golf Club in Fanling, where the tournament will be staged from December 1-4.
“Chinarat is clearly one of the most exciting talents to have emerged in world golf for a long time,” says Hong Kong Golf Association chief executive Iain Valentine. “To capture the World Junior Championship is a fantastic achievement, but to go on and win a top class professional tournament – against the best players in Asia – is simply phenomenal.
“Here is a young player who impresses not only with his talent, but also his temperament. He doesn’t seem to suffer from nerves on the golf course, even in a professional event, and he is very clear about his career goals. Obviously, there are a lot of ifs and buts about a player his age, but when discussing what he’s capable of achieving, well, the sky’s the limit.
“It’s great news for the UBS Hong Kong Open that he’s taking part and I’m sure the Hong Kong fans are anxious to see him play. He’ll have plenty of support, there’s no doubt about that, because the galleries would love to see a young, up-and-coming Asian player do well.”
Chinarat’s impending appearance at Fanling is exciting everyone connected with the tournament, including the title sponsor.
“The Asian Tour has proven itself as an effective showcase for regional golf in recent years, especially with the emergence of players like KJ Choi and Thongchai Jaidee,” says Kathryn Shih, chief executive of UBS Hong Kong Branch.
“For Chinarat to triumph on the elite stage at just 17 years of age, and to edge out Thongchai himself, is a remarkable effort. He’s a fantastic young talent and I’m sure Hong Kong golf fans will be eager to see him play at the UBS Hong Kong Open.
“He’ll be competing with some of the game’s top names, including Colin Montgomerie, Miguel Angel Jimenez, KJ Choi and Padraig Harrington, so it will be interesting to see how he performs.”
Not that Chinarat is feeling any pressure. He shrugs off talk that he needs to reproduce another victory soon to reaffirm his stature as Asia’s newest star. “I’ll use my two-year exemption on the Asian Tour to the fullest,” he says.
“I’ve got a lot more to learn in this game and my main goal will be to make the cut in every event. Ultimately, I want to try to make it on to the US PGA Tour.”
Chinarat accepts that comparisons with other players – and one in particular – are inevitable. After all, this is an outrageously talented young player of Thai heritage who has turned professional after a stellar amateur career. The same description applied several years ago to the current world number one.
While flattered, Chinarat insists: “I think Tiger has his own style and I have mine.”
Indeed, he doesn’t model his game on anyone else and rejects the notion that he idolised any particular player while growing up. “No, I didn’t have any specific hero,” he says. “I want to be a hero for myself.”