Thai golfer Ariya has faced some tough times in her life but discipline and determination have always helped her find her way back to the top.
In a country where most sports fans are obsessed with European football and whose signature style of kickboxing, Muay Thai, is known the world over, it is all too rare that we acknowledge the several high-profile athletes from Thailand who have made their mark on the global sports stage.
Former tennis star Paradorn Srichaphan reached No. 9 in the world and won five ATP Tour titles, badminton queen Ratchanok Intanon emerged as a record-breaking world champion at 18 while taekwondo exponent Panipak Wongpattanakit has brought home almost every gold medal there is along with two world championship crowns.
However, it is the Thai empress of golf Ariya Jutanugarn who has put Thailand firmly on the world map of professional sports. “May,” as she is affectionately called by friends and family, was the first player from Thailand to win the LPGA Tour, the governing body of professional women’s golf, and went on to grab 10 titles including major victories in the Women’s British Women in 2016 and U.S. Women’s Open in 2018. These triumphs have made her the most successful professional athlete in Thai history.
Yet back home, she hasn’t reached the same level of stardom as big-name footballer Chanathip Songkrasin, who is currently playing for Japan’s Consadole Sapporo. She is rarely recognised when out and about in Bangkok, unlike Chanathip who is bombarded with fans asking for selfies with him. Golf is rather a niche sport in Thailand, and sports programmes on TV tend to focus on soccer updates rather than what’s going on in the golfing world.
Ariya’s achievements, nevertheless, have inspired young countrywomen to follow in her footsteps on the greens. A decade ago joining the LPGA Tour would have been a distant dream for a Thai player, but Ariya and her elder sister Moriya, also an LPGA Tour winner, have proved that this sport is no longer dominated by South Korean, American and European golfers. Last year, up to 10 players from Thailand were ranked in the top 150 money list, the highest in this region. Furthermore, Thailand has had three winners on the ladies’ top tier tour; namely, Moriya in 2018 and Jasmine (Thidapa) Suwannapura in both 2018 and 2019.
Like many top athletes, Ariya has gone through many trials before reaching the pinnacle of her career in 2018. When she and her sister were still very young, her parents sold their golf shop and dared to do what other Thais had not - take their daughters to the US to pursue a golfing career. In 2013, less than a year after turning professional, Ariya, then 17, suffered a severe shoulder injury after a heavy fall on the course that kept her on the sidelines for seven months.
During those dark days, while her golf career was in doubt, another storm hit the family when her parents separated then divorced, leaving Ariya, her sister, and mother to strive for success on their own. It was Ariya’s commitment and perseverance that brought her breakthrough in 2016 when she became the first Thai ever to win on the LPGA Tour at the 2016 Yokohama Tire LPGA Classic in Alabama.
Today, after a career that has spanned more than a decade, Ariya has learned a very valuable life lesson, that problems, no matter how serious they might seem at the time, don’t last forever. Back in June 2017, after winning her sixth career title in Ontario, Canada and claiming the No. 1 spot in women’s golf, Ariya’s form disappeared. In the next 12 events over five months, the Thai failed to post a top 20 finish and missed the cut five times.
The tide finally turned at the season-ending event in November that year when she beat the American duo of Lexi Thompson and Jessica Korda by a stroke to claim the CME Group Tour Championship in Florida. That earned her the top prize money of US$500,000, one of the most handsome cheques ever to come her way.
“When I look back, I realise it was only five months, but it seemed like an eternity. Everything seemed so negative that it was hard to see the light,” Ariya says of one of the most difficult phases in her life. “But I finally learnt that your down moments don’t hang around forever. You just have to live with it and wait.”
Never stopping believing is another message that Ariya delivers to young Thai golfers. Just before her victory in Canada, it was widely speculated that she would overthrow Lydia Ko of New Zealand for the No. 1 position in the world at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in Atlanta in early June 2017. However, when the LPGA rankings were updated, Ariya remained at No. 2, losing out to Ko by just 0.01 of a point.
The pressure, she recalls, was immense. Fearing that she would never live up to the expectations, Ariya thought about withdrawing from the Ontario tournament. However, even though her mother and sister Moriya couldn’t be with her, Ariya picked up her favourite 2-iron and decided to face her fears.
“Obstacles are out there, and we can’t avoid them forever. Withdrawing from a tournament was not a solution and I knew that. If I wanted to become the world No. 1, I had to go out there, play golf, and deal with the obstacles. Unexpectedly, I won the tournament and rose to the top spot,” says the golf icon. “You have to believe in yourself no matter what,” adds Ariya, who made a historic clean sweep of all five major awards in 2018: Player of the Year, Race to CME Globe, Annika Major Award, LPGA Vare Trophy, Top 10 Leaders, and No. 1 Money List.
During the COVID-19 pause in play between February to July, Ariya took the opportunity to take part in several public service activities as a way of giving back to society for the enduring support she has enjoyed. She donated a COVID-19 Modular swab unit to Chonburi Hospital and gave away meal boxes to needy communities in Bangkok. She is no stranger to charity work, as she and her sister have always supported charitable projects when not on tour.
“When we are free, we want to lend a helping hand where help is needed. It’s always nice to do something for people around us to make them a little happier,” says Ariya who is in better shape than ever after shedding 10 kilos.
Once a regular nibbler of sweets and snacks, Ariya has become more disciplined with her diet following a blood test earlier this year.
“The results were poor in almost every area. I was told that if I didn’t change my habits, it may affect my golfing career. I want to play golf indefinitely,” says the big hitter, adding that her new lean figure has in no way diminished her strength.
Now 24, Ariya is already back in action as the Tour resumes in August, but thus far, 2020 has not been a brilliant season for the Thai who has yet to post a top 10 finish in four events. But, she knows she’s still got the game in her. All she has to do is to remain positive and patient until at the right time when everything comes together, she will rise to the occasion again.
Some of the athletes from Thailand who have made their mark on the global sports stage
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