By Olle Nordberg, Former Asian Tour and European Tour professional
The Thailand Open was inaugurated in 1965 and is one of the oldest national Opens in Asia. The trophy is one of the most recognizable in golf with three elephants holding up a giant silver golf ball. Prizemoney for 2019 is US$300,000 of which the winner’s share will be US$54,000.
Past winners include Thai greats Boonchu Ruangkit and Prayad Marksaeng, as well as international stars of yesteryear such as Australians Graham Marsh and two-time Major winner David Graham.
The event came back to the Asian Tour schedule in 2017 after an eight-year hiatus, and the local contingent has proven very difficult to beat with Rattanon Wannasirichan claiming the title in 2017 and Panuphol Pittayarat in 2018.
Last year’s edition saw Thai players grab the top five spots in the tournament and also had seven out of the top 10 finishers in the event.
Last year Panuphol, also known at Coconut or just Coco on Tour, held off compatriot Poom Saksansin to win the title by a single shot after shooting scores of 67, 64, 66 and 70 for a score of 13-under-par 267.
Thai Country Club is one of the premier courses in Thailand with perfectly manicured fairways and smooth fast greens, and the club has won multiple awards for its clubhouse, F&B and well-appointed locker rooms.
It is also one of the few courses in Bangkok that has a true “club atmosphere”, due to an extensive events schedule with member tournaments and other social activities such as charity events etc. that promote membership interaction.
The course will this year play to 7,198 yards as a par of 71 with the fourth hole converted to a par-four, whereas last year’s championship played as a par-70 with the fourth and seventh holes converted to par- fours.
New tees have been built on the 11th and 18th holes adding length, and especially on number 18 this might make a big difference on Sunday afternoon.
The prevailing wind this time of year should be into the players face from the left, and if the pin is tucked back into the far-left corner of the green it will make the approach very demanding as there is a bunker guarding the front left and water right behind the green.
Adding 20 yards to the hole, and essentially two clubs on the approach shot, it would be a treacherous pin to attack with a mid-iron or longer. The shot would demand pinpoint accuracy and a very soft landing in order to hold the green and staying out of the water.
An existing back-tee that was not used during 2017 and 2018 will now be used on number 10, which will also add 50 yards to the hole.
The course will however offer up plenty of birdie chances as it’s not overly long by modern Tour standards. The main trouble off the tee will be the rough which can be thick in spots, and the greens that can play very firm if they are dried out and it doesn’t rain during the week.
Players will likely need to shoot some low scores to have a chance at winning the title, as shown by the 267 (-13) and 263 (-21) winning scores in 2018 and 2017 respectively.
Defending champion Panuphol will be trying to retain the title on his home course, and he has proven the last two years that it fits his game like a glove: a win last year and a tied-second in 2017.
Starting out the year with a tied-ninth at the SMBC Singapore Open it remains his only top-10 this season, but with over US$106,000 in earnings he is still inside the top-30 on the Order of Merit.
Known as a very solid ball-striker Panuphol is always dangerous when his putter gets hot, and if recent history at Thai Country Club is any guide to who will be the man to beat this week, he is at the top of the list.
The winner of the last Asian Tour event, Mercuries Taiwan Masters, has had a solid season with top-10’s in September at the Yeangder TPC and Classic Golf and Country Club International Championship in addition to the win last month.
At number nine on the Order of Merit with just over US$232,000 he is the highest ranked player in the field this week and will be looking to continue his good form of late.
A player with one of the most complete games on the Asian Tour, Tabuena narrowly missed out on his third career Asian Tour title in Taipei last month. Bogeying the last two holes to finish one stroke behind the winner, he would dearly like to make amends with a win this week in Thailand.
The Filipino also posted a fifth-place finish at the Sarawak Championship in August, and with over US$146,000 he is currently ranked 16th on the Order of Merit.
The Indian has come close to winning twice this season with a second at the Bangabandhu Cup in April, and a tied-second at the Mercuries Taiwan Masters where a double bogey on the 16th hole on Sunday derailed his bid for a second career Asian Tour title.
Sandhu ranks highly in the Greens in Regulation (GIR) stat this year with 71.3%, which should serve him well this week. He is currently 15th on the Order of Merit with just over US$157,000.
One of the top rookies this season, Kosuke came close to winning in his first season on tour when he finished second to Yikeun Chang at the Yeangder TPC in September, and he also posted a tied-10th at the Bank BRI Indonesia Open in August. A very impressive start to his career for the young Thai.
One of the highest ranked in the GIR stat this year with 74.4%, he also has one of the best scrambling percentages with 67.5%. With over US$88,000 in earnings Kosuke has already secured his playing rights for next season, and a maiden win this week at Thai Country Club should not come as a surprise to anyone.
The two-time Asian Tour winner in 2014 has been in great form this season while playing on a country exemption after losing his card in 2018.
Khan has posted four top-10’s in only six starts on the Asian Tour, plus two wins back home on the Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI), and is coming off top-fives in his last two events: a tied-second at the Classic Golf and Country Club International Championship and a tied-fifth at the Mercuries Taiwan Masters.
Near the top of the list in both GIR (73.2%) and Putts/GIR (1.73) and with his playing rights for 2020 already locked up, Khan looks ready to get back into the winner’s category once again.
The 17-year-old Korean recently earned a battlefield promotion from the Asian Development Tour (ADT) to the Asian Tour by winning three ADT events in the same season and looks very much like a future star player.
In addition to these three wins, Kim posted a third-place finish at the Bank BRI Indonesia Open and has recorded eight other top-10’s on the Asian Development Tour and All Thailand Golf Tour in 2019.
It will be very interesting to see if he can bring his winning ways from the Asian Development Tour to the Asian Tour the rest of the season.