x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

PGA Championship: Thai drops driving for his driver

Kiradech Aphibarnrat, the 24-year-old Thai golfer, has a hefty physique and big-hitting, go-for-broke style of play that draws comparisons to that of John Daly.

Kiradech Aphibarnrat is happy for the comparisons in his game and physique to John Daly.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat is happy for the comparisons in his game and physique to John Daly.

He is known as Asia's version of John Daly, but the little-known Kiradech Aphibarnrat of Thailand made a name for himself by storming into contention in the first round of the US PGA Championship.

The 24-year-old golfer's hefty physique and big-hitting, go-for-broke style of play have drawn comparisons to that of Daly, and he lived up to the billing, finishing his opening round three shots ahead of Tiger Woods, the world No 1.

Aphibarnrat, who changed his name for good luck and gave up car racing three years ago to appease his worried mother, showed no nerves while playing in only his second major, where he hopes to improve on his missed cut at last month's British Open.

"It was great golf for me and a good start for my second major," Aphibarnrat said after shooting a two-under-par 68 at the sunny Oak Hill Country Club. "I was doing good in the British Open but struggled in the second round. I was a bit nervous, but I have learnt from the experience of that major and will just try to work it out on the game."

Calling car racing too dangerous, Aphibarnrat decided to give up the sport after four years, a decision that sent his pleased mother into tears of joy on her birthday.

But the adrenaline Aphibarnrat enjoyed while racing Subaru Imprezas in Thailand has not carried over to the golf course, where he has recorded one victory on the European Tour and two wins on his home Asian Tour.

"It's a big difference," said Aphibarnrat, who won the Malaysian Open in March. "All sports are the same; you have to focus. But golf and racing are different. Golf is like shot by shot but racing you have to go and go ... it's more intense."

Aphibarnrat's stands 1.73m, and his caddie estimates the golfer weighs 120kg. Last week he said: "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."

Aphibarnrat started golfing when he was eight and is one of the most exciting young players to emerge from Thailand.

He welcomes the comparisons to Daly, who won the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in Indiana.

"I played with him a couple of times and I am really proud with that comparison," said Aphibarnrat. "He is one of the PGA Championship winners, as well, and it's my pleasure if I can hear comparisons." Aphibarnrat, known previously as Anujit Hirunratanakorn, changed his name about seven years ago, a decision he said is seen by many in Thailand as a viable way to change one's luck.

He may need a lot of luck to emulate Daly's unlikely PGA Championship victory at Crooked Stick, where the burly American triumphed by three strokes after being the ninth alternate in the build-up to the tournament.

"I don't want to force myself a lot," said Aphibarnrat, who was greeted warmly by the gallery at the 18th hole as he lumbered his way onto the green. "Just stick to the game plan and keep it on the fairway and give myself a lot of chances to putt."

Aphibarnrat is playing his second straight event in the US. He opened with rounds of 69 and 68 at Firestone last week and went on to tie for 40th at the Bridgestone Invitational.

Winning a major might be some time down the road for Aphibarnrat, and the more immediate future holds a shot to win the Asian Tour's Order of Merit.

He has a substantial lead - nearly US$400,000 (Dh1.47 million) — over India's Gaganjeet Bhullar as the tour moves into its second half. If he can hang on to the top spot, he would join countrymen Thongchai Jaidee and Thaworn Wiratchant among Thai golfers who have conquered Asia.

And if his early returns are any indication, Aphibarnrat appears to be up to the task of receiving the torch from his elder statesmen.

"Thongchai, Prayad [Marksaeng], Thaworn, Boonchu [Ruangkit] do a great job of representing Thailand," Aphibarnrat said.

"I think I can be part of a new generation to represent Thais."

 

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