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Tiger Child wins for Thailand

Thongchai Jaidee and the Birth of Thai Golf

Posted Jun 05, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

thongchai jaidee

Victory for Thongchai Jaidee in the ISPS Honda Wales Open at Celtic Manor, came forty six and a half years after the most significant event in the golfing history of his native Thailand.  Jaidee was but a lad of six summers when the 23rd World Cup of Golf was staged at Navatanee, near Bangkok, in December 1975. 

In view of Thailand’s proximity to Vietnam, where US troops were having a decidedly difficult time back then, Jack Nicklaus thought it more prudent to give the event a miss.   However his replacement, Johnny Miller, proved to be a very able partner for reigning US Open champion, Lou Graham, and the pair secured a ten-stroke victory over Taiwan, while Miller captured the individual title.

Given that Jaidee’s win in Wales made him the first golfer from his country to win on European soil - his other three official Tour wins were in Malaysia and Indonesia -  it is fascinating to note that the Thai team of ’75,  Sucree Oncham and Adul Thappavibul, actually claimed seventh place ahead of such notable challengers as England, South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland and Scotland.  In fact they finished no fewer than 16 strokes clear of the Spanish pairing of Angel Gallardo and a promising youngster by the name of Severiano Ballesteros.   And Sucree was the ninth best individual behind Miller.

Remarkably, this wasn’t the best World Cup performance either by Sucree or his country.  As it happened, Thailand finished fourth behind the US pairing of Lee Trevino and Orville Moody in Singapore in 1969 when 27-year-old Sucree was actually tied third individual behind Supermex.  In fact a major upset was on the cards when he and his 22-year-old partner, Sochin Suwanapong, led the tournament by two strokes from the American duo with a round to play.  That was when Trevino turned the screw with a closing 65 while a 69 from Moody secured them victory over Japan by eight strokes with the Thais a further two strokes adrift. 

Navatanee was a course cut out of old rice paddy-fields and we’re told that the winning pair were supplied with gallons of energising Gatorade by the commandant of a local US Air Force base.  This particular beverage was not readily available in Thailand at the time and rivals suggested it gave the sweating Americans a distinct advantage.

The course was designed by the celebrated American golf architect, Robert Trent Jones, who was taken out in a boat to inspect the property by a certain Sukhum Navapan, President of the Thai Military Bank, who was determined to put his country on the golfing map.   When Jones asked his prospective employer where the site of the course was, Sukhum famously replied: “You’re floating on it.”  In the event, the banker’s foresight was to become a very nice money-earner in Thailand’s rapidly developing tourism industry.

Ironically, Nicklaus has been prominent among overseas architects to have benefited from the Thai golfing boom and I can recall playing one of his courses which had more than a passing resemblance to Mount Juliet, on a visit I made there during the 1990s.

As an interesting aside, a visiting scribe for the 1975 World Cup discovered that a pre-occupation with golf had become something of an irritation to one rather prominent member of the Thai royal family.   It seems that King Rama VII, not a great golf devotee himself, was moved to have a money-box placed on the royal table into which anyone mentioning the game would be obliged to place one Bhat (local currency) as a fine.  And there was a ten-Bhat fine for anyone using golfing gestures such as demonstrating the swing or grip, even knives or forks were not used as props, while sitting to dine.

Meanwhile, Miller and Graham became lost in admiration over the four-day event, for the strength and good humour of their young local, female caddies.  Indeed they were so impressed as to describe them as the “Tiger Children” of Navatanee. 

One imagines Jaidee being a tiger child in his own right at that time.  And an overdue European triumph could prove to be one of the more popular victories of this golfing season.

- Dermot Gilleece

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