Thai ace Kiradech latest to join Asian influx in PGA

Kiradech Aphibarnrat has earned full PGA membership for 2018-19 season. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

If all roads lead to Rome, it would be an apt sporting analogy to accede that all fairways meandering across the world of golf will steer the dreamers and gifted into golfing heaven that is known as the PGA Tour.

Representing the pinnacle of professional tournament golf, the PGA Tour undoubtedly attracts the greatest golfers on the planet which now includes a cosmopolitan line-up of 88 international players from 27 nations.

Interestingly, each member has undertaken a unique journey, beginning from a different starting point but eventually reaching their ultimate destination.

And many will attest that Tiger Woods has largely been a source of inspiration as they bid to shoot for the stars.

For Asia, a growing legion of young and exciting talents from South Korea, China, Japan, India and Taiwan are now realising their American dream, with big-hitting Kiradech Aphibarnrat being the latest name on everyone’s lips.

Kiradech has garnered sufficient FedExCup points as a non-member to virtually become the first Thai golfer to earn a PGA Tour card for the 2018-19 season.

The 28-year-old Thai began his golfing adventure on the Asian Tour where his success led him on to the European Tour.

From there, he secured multiple victories on both circuits to get into the World Golf Championships and two top-five finishes in the WGC-Mexico Championship and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play earlier this year have since paved his way to the PGA Tour.

“I’m sure I’ll feel right at home. There are many Thai restaurants around in the US and I’ve also gotten used to American food like pizzas and lamb chops. More importantly, the American golf courses suit my kind of game and I’m confident I can settle down quickly. It’s a dream come true,” said Kiradech, ranked 32nd in the world.

In the case of Japan’s rising son Hideki Matsuyama, the 26-year-old simply skyrocketed into the big league in 2013 after amassing six top-25s in seven starts to earn his card via the non-member category.

His talent was for all to see after he won the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship twice (2010 and 2011) and he has since won five times on the PGA Tour, including two WGC tournaments.

Other Asian aspirants have ventured on windier routes.

One such golfer is South Korea’s An Byeong-Hun, better known on the PGA Tour as Ben An.

He learned to play the game when he was five despite both parents being Olympic Games medallists in table tennis and as his interest in golf grew, he was sent to the United States when he was 15 years old to attend high school and undergo the golf programme at the IMG Academy at Bradenton, Florida.

In two years, not only did he learn to speak and write in English, An sensationally won the prestigious US Amateur, becoming the youngest champion in the tournament history.

A college career at the University of California, Berkeley ensued but the powerful South Korean cut short his college stint as he knew professional golf was his calling.

An failed in his first attempt at PGA Tour qualifying school and landed instead on the European Challenge Tour, sending him to the far reaches such as Kenya, Azerbaijan, Oman and Kazakstan.

However, the hard knocks on Europe’s secondary circuit toughened him up and An’s class eventually shone as he played his way onto the European Tour, and then breaking through with a win at the 2015 BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

In the following year, he produced five top-25s in 14 starts to earn his PGA Tour card through the non-member category and the amiable South Korean has continued to knock on the door to a first victory in America, coming agonisingly close in June when he lost in a play-off to Bryson Dechambeau at the Memorial Tournament and finishing second again at the Canadian Open.

An, Kiradech, Matsuyama and a growing band of Asian rising stars have shown there is more than just one way to get onto the PGA Tour.

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