Flashback: The Korea Open that launched a star


Published on October 8, 2020

The fact that Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee only started playing golf when he was 16 years old and he turned professional when aged 30 makes his rise to the top of the game remarkable.

During an unparalleled career, he has claimed three Asian Tour Order of Merit titles, won 13 times on the Asian Tour and lifted eight European Tour trophies.

And, he currently tops the Asian Tour career earnings list with US$5,744,337.

It makes you wonder what he would have achieved if he had turned professional a decade earlier, like most of his contemporaries.

 

Thongchai Jaidee winning the Kolon Korea Open in 2000.

 

The Thai star, however, was not wasting away his talent in his twenties. As is well documented, he served his country both in the military – as a paratrooper in the Rangers – and on the national golf team, playing in Asia’s top amateur events.

He was extremely successful in the amateur game – he won both the Thailand and Singapore Amateur Championships in 1998 as well as the Putra Cup – so it was with good reason that his country wanted him to turn professional later.

The region waited patiently and with eager anticipation for him to join the professional game, but when that day came he did not disappoint.

On this day 20 years ago, the Thai star tasted victory for the first time on the Asian Tour when he triumphed in the Kolon Korea Open at Seoul Country Club.

Some big names in the game have won Korea’s National Open – including Spain’s Sergio Garcia in 2002, American John Daly the following year and Vijay Singh from Fiji in 2007 – but very few have been as significant as Thongchai’s.

The victory opened the floodgates for many more wins and announced the arrival of a player who would go on to become one of Asia’s greatest golfers.

Later in his career he was to say: “I will always remember my first win in Korea as that was also the first in my career. More importantly, that win also gave me the confidence to go on and achieve bigger things. If I didn’t win that tournament, I would have lost confidence and I don’t think I would have won so many tournaments. Winning in Korea made me hungry to win more tournaments.”

He had been a professional almost two years before winning in the Land of Morning Calm but, in that time, his performances showed that clearly he was a player on course for greatness.

 

Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand tees off on October 27, 2000 on day two of the Lexus International at the Windmill Park Country Club, Bangkok, Thailand. Jaidee finished the day after carding a three-under-par, 69. Jaidee finished in fourth place in the US$ 260.000 event. Picture by Paul Lakatos/Asian PGA.

 

In January of 1999, in his first event as a professional on the Asian Tour, he finished in a tie for fifth at the London Myanmar Open.

And the results kept coming, highlighted by a second place finish in the Sabah Masters at the end of that year.

He was also making cut after cut and it would be two and half years before he failed to make it through to the weekend for the first time – at the Singapore Open in June of 2001.

In 2000, he notched a couple of top-five finishes in the run up to the Korea Open so it would have been an understatement to say he was on the cusp of a maiden victory.

And he had the added advantage of having Wanchai Meechai, a Tournament Director on the Asian Tour, caddie for him in Korea.

He started the prestigious tournament with a two-under-par 70, which was four shots behind first-round leader Arjun Atwal from India.

And a 69 on day two saw him sit two adrift of Atwal – who shared the lead with Korean Jongkoo Yoo.

Atwal was unable to maintain his fine form and slipped back with a 74 after the third round while it was South African Craig Kamps who took over at the helm, shooting a 67 – for a one shot advantage over Thongchai, who carded a 69.

Kamps was one of the in-form golfers on Tour at the time and a regular contender but Thongchai was undeterred and set about his business with vigour and confidence on Sunday.

He played flawless golf on the front nine, making a birdie and eight pars.

And he took a firm grip of the tournament on the inward half when, after parring holes 10 to 14, he made decisive birdies on 15 and 16.

He was helped in his quest for his first title by the fact that his closest challengers dropped shots over the closing holes.

 

CASCAIS, PORTUGAL – JUNE 07: Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand celebrates his hole-in-one on the sixth hole during Day One of the GolfSixes at Oitavos Dunes on June 07, 2019 in Cascais, Portugal. (Photo by Luke Walker/Getty Images)

 

A play-off looked very much on the cards but Kamps dropped a shot on 17, Yoo bogeyed 15 and 18, while even more dramatically Korean Wooksoon Kang triple-bogeyed 17.

Thongchai also made bogey on the final hole but he was still able to secure a one-shot victory over Kamps.

The Thai received a cheque for US$63,213 – by far the biggest pay day of his career up until that point – and the self-belief that he could win at the highest level of the game.

Another 16 Tour victories, and multiple awards and accolades, followed over the next two decades but none would have meant as much as that day when his game discovered real “Seoul”.

Ends.

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