The brilliant Thai, winner of four European Tour events, talks to Alex Jenkins about playing with Colin Montgomerie, his compassion for Tiger Woods, the state of his own game and his life as a paratrooper in the Thai Army
he first thing you notice about Thongchai Jaidee is how ridiculously fit he is. The Thai – and former Asian – number one carries not an ounce of fat on him. Although he stands only five-foot-seven, Thongchai, who is approaching his 42nd birthday, is certainly not the type of chap you'd fancy armwrestling with the night's bar bill on the line. But then again,
this former Army paratrooper has had a habit of surprising people over the course of his brilliant career. For this interview, I met Thongchai for a few holes at the immaculate Amata Spring Golf Club in Chonburi, a 90-minute drive from Bangkok, where my subject featured prominently in winning the Royal Trophy for Asia against Europe in 2009. He is, I quickly realised, in jovial mood. "Nice shoes, man," he laughs, in reference to my brand-new pair of Ecco BIOM golf shoes. The Danish footwear brand - one of Thongchai's sponsors - has helped set up this meeting - and has kindly provided me with a suitably refined pair of spikes for the occasion. "I wear the same model when I practice in Asia, but when I'm on tour I need something a bit more solid for when it rains," he adds, pointing to his own robustlooking golf shoes. "You know – it can really rain heavily on the European Tour." I come from Europe and I do indeed know this – all too well, sadly. But what I didn't know was Thongchai's far better-than-average grasp of the English language. Since winning the 2004 Malaysian Open, a co-sanctioned European and Asian Tour event, Thongchai has plied his trade on both circuits, and has clearly learned a lot more along the way than simply putting the ball in the hole. We tee off on the 10th, a mid-length par four, and – thank you, God – I manage to hit a decent drive with a touch of fade down the right side of the fairway. "Just like Monty," yells Thongchai, clearly delighted. I'm delighted too. Good old Thongchai, I think. He recognises a nice little fairway-finding cut when he sees one. WRONG! Thongchai is pointing at my stomach, which I have to admit has become rather more rounded since marriage. "Just like Monty," he repeats, barely able to contain his laughter, before adding, "same huge shape." He then rips one 290 down the middle – his swing is breathtakingly effortless – and we're on our way. CONTINUED ON PAGE 68
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year. He did a bad thing and he knows it. But it will take time [for him to get back to his best]. He's a very nice guy – I like him a lot – but I think there is nobody better. He needs time. Once he's recovered from his injury he'll be great again. Definitely. HKG: You've been injured recently too. How's the back? TJ: It's better. I had a nerve problem in my back and I had to change my swing a little bit because of that, but I feel OK. Once it recovers fully – I'm probably around 90 per cent at the moment – I will be better. I'm now outside the top 100 in the world rankings, but that's OK. I'm enjoying my life. I'm 42 this year, so that's alright. But I will be better next year.
"Being in the Army was tough. Really tough. But it has definitely helped me as a player. I'm able to control my feelings. I can control myself" CONTINUED FROM PAGE 70
HKG: [a little peeved] Monty's a terror, isn't he? Difficult to play with? TJ: [laughs]. I've played with him a lot – we used to get paired together all the time, especially in Asia when he was number one in Europe. But no, I really enjoy playing with him. He's a great guy. He hits it so straight it's crazy. But I like playing with Monty. I learned a lot just watching him play, even though I was longer. But that's not as important in golf as accuracy. He was definitely the best at that. HKG: But is Monty the best ever? You've played with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood ... TJ: They're all brilliant players. Rory is so young and such a great player ... he's so long, too. Westwood is very solid. Like Monty he doesn't make many mistakes, but he's longer and just as impressive. Tiger ... well, I realised how good Tiger was when I played with him years ago. And I've played with him a few times since then as well. The way he hits the ball – the distance, even with his three-wood, is amazing. But he's also a great putter. The first time I played with him I really couldn't believe it. Everything about his game is perfect. It has to be Tiger.
HKG: Can Tiger be as good as he was again? He's half Thai, so maybe he is less guarded with you than others? TJ: I think Tiger will win everything next 68
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HKG: How would you compare playing on the European Tour to the Asian Tour? TJ: The tours are ver y different. The European Tour is a different level. The grasses are different, the weather is different – as you know it can be four seasons in one hour over there. But it seems like the greens are all the same – the same surface. Nice bent grass everywhere. That makes it nice to putt on. But the quality of golf is definitely better. I've learned a lot over there. HKG: Talking of putting, I notice you're using a belly putter. Isn't that cheating a little? TJ: No! I heard they may ban it, but let's see. But I hold it like a normal putter. This year I have used a short putter, belly putter, short putter, belly putter ... I'm trying everything to hole a putt! When I use the long putter it helps me to be slower on the backstroke. I think that helps me. Now I'm a bit more smooth. But I may use the short putter next week. HKG: You've just returned from the European Masters at Crans in Switzerland. That looks like a beautiful course. Is it your favourite? TJ: You know, I was hitting it further than anyone there. I don't know why. Maybe the height. But I was longer, for sure. I did OK and I enjoyed it. My favourite course? I really like The Belfry in England. That's really nice. A really good golf course. That's probably my favourite. HKG: The Belfry? Really? You play all around the world and The Belfry – the one near Birmingham in England – is your favourite? You've played all four majors remember ... TJ: Yeah. Really nice last hole. Good greens. I like playing there a lot. And the 10th – a nice, short par-four. I can reach it with a three-wood, maybe a two-iron. HKGOLFER.COM
HKG: [nigh on incredulous] OK. So what are your goals for 2012? You're surely due a win ... the last one was the Ballantine's Championship in 2009. TJ: Once my back better I will do better too. Personally, I want to play in the Masters again [Thongchai became the first Thai golfer to play at Augusta when he achieved the feat in 2006]. And of course I want to win again. It's not that easy, you know [laughs]. HKG: Unlike the vast majority of pros today, you had a job during your amateur days: jumping out of helicopters on behalf of the Thai Army! Has that helped you in any way as far as your career is concerned? TJ: Definitely. In those days I would be training in the seaside, the jungle, the mountains ... wherever. I was carrying 30-40kg on my back and running – not walking – but running all day. All day! It was hard. It was really hard. But the most important thing is that it made me mentally tough. In the Army, there is no schedule. You don't know what you're going to have to do that day, and that helped me control my emotions. It really helped me mentally. As a pro, we all get angry if we duff a chip or whatever, but I'm able to control any mistakes I make as a result. Being in the Army has helped me with controlling my feelings. HKG: And helped you with your fitness, too, presumably? TJ: Of course. I go to the gym for two and a half hours a day – and even when I was injured, I was still running every evening. Golf has changed. You have to be fit. It looks easy [doing
what we do] but it isn't. Playing golf, travelling every week – you have to be fit, otherwise you are at a big disadvantage. It can be hard. HKG: Aside from everything else, you're also president of the Thai PGA. What have you been doing in your role there? TJ: There are 14 pro events in Thailand, of which two are on the Asian Tour. I want to create more opportunities for Thai pros to play in big events. I want to have big tournaments – I want to make a "Masters of Thailand" – for Thai golfers to experience. We have the King's Cup and the Queen's Cup [Asian Tour events with limited purses] but we should have more. I am working on this. I am trying to make things better. HKG: And you also have your own golf academy for children ... TJ: I have an academy and a foundation in my home town of Lop Buri [150km from Bangkok]. The foundation is to give poor kids a chance of education and golf and the academy is for good young golfers to become better through proper coaching. It costs THB6 million [approximately HK$1.5 million] per year to run and we started it in 2000. Ecco gives 100 pairs of shoes per year, which is a big help. It means all the kids can wear proper golf shoes. I'm very proud of what we've done there. HKG: What's next for Thongchai Jaidee? TJ: Win again. Once my back is fixed I'll be ready again. HKG: Will that be in time for the UBS Hong Kong Open? TJ: Maybe. I hope so. I love Hong Kong [laughs].
Asian Supremo (clockwise from top): Thongchai is targetting a successful 2012 following an injuryplagued season; showing off his short game skills; he last tasted victory on the European Tour at the 2009 Ballantine's Championship HK Golfer・OCT 2011