The best way her countrymen can reward the golf champ is simply to be good fans
Ariya Jutanugarn has become both Thailand’s biggest pride and our biggest sporting
legend. The golfer has captured the world No 1 spot, and quite deservedly if you’ve seen her play. But just how a Thai has managed to excel at one of the “elite” sports is a far less unequivocal consideration. Golf isn’t like boxing, a sport favoured by Thais for centuries, or sepak takraw, which is mostly played in Southeast Asia, so we have plenty of talented practitioners. Golf is nowhere near as popular here, which is why some people asked this past week, “Ariya who?”
Sport commentators aren’t surprised by her triumph, regarding Thais as second to none when it comes to individual sports. It’s the team sports in which Thais struggle more. The hypothesis certainly holds true for tennis heroes Paradorn Srichaphan and Tamarine Tanasugarn, badminton champ Ratchanok Intanon, snooker king James Wattana and boxer Khaosai Galaxy, arguably the best pugilist we’ve ever produced.
Tennis and boxing are comparatively cheaper pursuits than golf, though, so becoming one of the few Thais to excel at the sport – and rising to the top of the world rankings – is an astounding feat indeed.
In Thailand golf remains the reserve of the affluent. There are no golf courses at our schools. Perhaps less than 1 per cent of the population has even set foot on a driving range. You won’t see golfers toting their bags full of clubs onto public buses. To truly excel requires overseas training and experience in international competition, so there is considerable expenditure involved.
And yet none of this in the slightest detracts from the glory of Ariya’s success.
She might not have been as well known as Ratchanok and the others, but she’s the nation’s darling now, and dealing with the pressure that brings can be as tough as the trickiest tournament. Usually, the incumbent women’s world No 1 holds onto her throne for several months at least. Ariya must maintain a high standard to survive at the top that long, and her efforts in that endeavour would be boosted immensely by the support of her countrymen. That includes showing restraint in our expressions of adulation. Far too many promising Thai athletes have been distracted by stardom, which has a tendency to erode discipline and eventually self-confidence.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has duly praised and congratulated Ariya, but our leaders must do more to encourage Ariya wannabes and foster future champions in the sport. While Thailand earns millions from golf tourism, that industry has had nothing to do with Ariya’s success. While tax money goes to promoting the game as a tourist draw, little is allocated to promoting golf among Thais.
Interest in snooker boomed while James Wattana was at his peak. Tennis courts here were crowded when Paradorn and Tamarine were appearing in the Grand Slams overseas. Badminton is now hugely popular thanks to Ratchanok. Maybe it’s golf’s turn now.
Ariya has surely done her part. As she moves on to the next phase of her career, striving to retain her top ranking, the rest of us can best show our appreciation and encouragement by helping make her achievement the rule rather than the exception.