Golf’s history-making schoolboy from Thailand: Ratchanon ‘TK’ Chantananuwat
Like most 15-year-olds, Ratchanan “TK” Chantananuwat thinks about school, exams and college plans.
But Rachonen isn’t like most kids his age — he’s already a history-making amateur golfer competing against some of the sport’s best pros.
In April – five weeks after his 15th birthday – he made international headlines when he became the youngest male player to win on a major tour, claiming the $750,000 Trust Golf Asian Mixed Cup in his native Thailand.
Golf’s greatest feat
This month, he is studying for crucial biology and economics exams, a stress he has to juggle with representing his country at the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Vietnam.
It’s a balancing act of difficult proportions, but an unflappable Rachon has a point to prove.
“It gets a little difficult sometimes, but I enjoy the challenge,” he told CNN. “I love doing well in both and proving all the doubters wrong.
“Obviously if you’re an athlete, you can’t do well in school. I’m trying to change that.”
The victory on the Asian Tour marked a new high-point in the fledgling career of one of the game’s brightest young stars. Ratchanon – aged just 13 years and four months – has become the youngest player to make the cut in the history of the All Thailand Golf Tour, in August 2020.
And incredibly, he came close to winning an Asian Tour event, finishing third in his first international pro event at the Singapore International in January.
Rachonen’s golfing origin story reads like a comic book. Having started playing with plastic clubs and balls at the age of three, TK – a nickname that combines his parents’ initials – finished last in his first tournament at the age of four.
“I saw the kid who got the trophy and I was really, really jealous,” Rachanen recalls. “I didn’t know why I didn’t get it, so I was really upset. Then my dad had to explain to me how he won, so he got the trophy.”
And so after a month of intense training under the tutelage of a similarly competitive, golf-loving father, he got his hands on the trophy at the next attempt.
At his first Junior World event a year later, chairs on every tee had inspirational messages written on them. “Winners never quit and quitters never win,” read one, a motto that epitomizes Rachonen’s mindset and work ethic.
His father serves as his caddy as well as a third coach, putting in extra hours with his son to make up lessons from two other coaches. On no-school days, an already intense practice regimen ramps up another level, with the youngster spending anywhere between seven and nine hours on the course honing his craft.
Warned against exhaustion, Rachon has begun taking the occasional half-day off – spending time on tutoring, physiotherapy or fitness – but brushes off any suggestion of burnout.
“I don’t see it happening. I like golf. I love to practice,” Rachanon said.
“Yes, it’s hard – it’s grueling and it takes a lot of discipline, but just two months of hard work to get a good shot or just a good result, I think it pays off for me. ”
And who better to oversee Ratchanan’s ascent than compatriot Thongchai Jaidi, an Asian Tour legend with 20 professional wins to his name. The 52-year-old icon has helped the youngster with various aspects of his game since their first meeting in 2019.
When Rachnon wanted to learn his hero’s spinning chip, the pair spent the next three weeks practicing the technique six hours a day.
“He’s helping me a lot with my game. He’s a great guy,” Rachanon said. “I think he enjoys helping develop Thai golfers for the future of Thai golf.”
Thongchai has also helped the teenager adapt to the mental side of the game, helping him implement a routine to overcome lapses in performance under pressure. Now, Ratchanon has a method to use in big moments: Slow down, take a sip of water, and swing “without hesitation.”
Asked about the pressure of the “teen prodigy” tag and rubbing shoulders with the sport’s elite, the 15-year-old replied, “I enjoy it.”
“I’m not feeling the pressure … I’m not afraid to play with good people,” he said.
“No one really pushed it on me and I’m very lucky to have a lot of good people around me who will support me and help keep me in line.”
It’s an attitude that helps Ratchanon take one step at a time. Not rushing to make the jump to the professional game, he’s laser-focused on growing the school.
Rachonen is already dreaming of studying physics at a US college, keeping up his golf balancing act. He is keen to follow the examples set by Colin Morikawa and Thailand’s Patty Tawatanakit, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA respectively before tasting greater glory.
“I’ve seen a lot of Thai players turn pro early, but now I think a lot of people know that going to college is worth their time,” he said.
“If we become pro, it is our life. We can’t really turn back.”