Like most 15-year-olds, Ratchanon “TK” Chantananuwat thinks about school, exams and college plans.
But Ratchanon isn’t like most kids his age — he’s already a history-making amateur golfer competing against some of the game’s top pros.
In April, five weeks after his 15th birthday, he made international headlines when he became the youngest male player to win a major Tour, claiming the $750,000 Asia Mixed Golf Cup in his Thailand birthday
This month she is studying for important biology and economics exams, a strain she has to juggle with representing her country at the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Vietnam.
It’s a balancing act of daunting proportions, but an unflappable Ratchanon has a point to prove.
“Sometimes it gets a little difficult, but I like the challenge,” he told CNN. “I love doing well in both and proving all the doubters wrong.
“It seems like if you’re an athlete, you can’t do well in school. I’m trying to change that.”
The Asian Tour victory marked a new high point in the fledgling career of one of the sport’s brightest young stars. Ratchanon has enjoyed a sensational rise since, aged just 13 years and four months, becoming the youngest player to make the cut in All Thailand Golf Tour history in August 2020.
And incredibly, he came very close to winning an Asian Tour event even earlier, finishing third in his first professional international event at the Singapore International in January.
The story of Ratchanon Gulf’s origin reads like a comic book. Having started playing with sticks and plastic balls at the age of three, TK, a nickname that twines his parents’ initials, came last in his first tournament at the age of four.
“I saw the kid who got the trophy and I got really, really jealous,” Ratchanon recalls. “I didn’t know why I didn’t get one, so I was really upset. Then my dad had to explain to me how he won, so he got the trophy.”
And so, after a month of intense training under the tutelage of an equally competitive, golf-loving father, he clinched the trophy on his next attempt.
At their first youth world event a year later, motivational messages were inscribed on the chairs of each jersey. “Winners never quit and losers never quit,” read one, a motto that exemplifies Ratchanon’s mindset and work ethic.
His father acts as a caddy and third coach, putting in extra hours for his son to take advantage of the lessons of two other coaches. On days without school, an already intensive practice regime rises to another level, the young man spends between seven and nine hours on the course perfecting his craft.
Warning of burnout, Ratchanon has begun taking the occasional half-day off – devoting the time to tutoring, physiotherapy or fitness – but rejects any suggestion of burnout.
“I don’t see it happening. I love golf. I love to practice,” Ratchanon said.
“Yes, it’s hard, it hurts and it takes a lot of discipline, but even just two months of super hard work just to get a good shot or just a good result, I think it’s worth it.”
And who better to oversee Ratchanon’s rise than compatriot Thongchai Jaidee, an Asian Tour legend with 20 career wins to his name. The 52-year-old icon has helped the youngster with various aspects of his game since they first met in 2019.
When Ratchanon wanted to learn the spinning chip from her hero, the pair spent the next three weeks practicing the technique for six hours a day.
“He’s been helping me a lot with my game. He’s a great guy,” Ratchanon said. “I think he likes to help develop Thai golfers for the future of Thai golf.”
Thongchai has also helped shape the mental side of the teenager’s game, helping him implement a routine to overcome performance slumps under pressure. Now, Ratchanon has a method to use in big moments: slow down, take a sip of water and swing “without hesitation.”
Asked about the pressure of the “teen prodigy” label and rubbing shoulders with the sport’s elite, the 15-year-old simply replies, “I like it.”
“I don’t feel pressured … I’m not afraid to play with good people,” he said.
“No one has really pushed me and I’m very lucky to have a lot of good people around me to help support me and keep me in line.”
It’s an attitude that helps Ratchanon take things one step at a time. Eager to take his leap into the professional game, he’s laser-focused on finishing school with flying colors.
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Ratchanon already dreams of studying physics at a US university, keeping her golf balance on the side. He is keen to follow the examples set by Thailand’s Colin Morikawa and Patty Tavatanakit, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA respectively before tasting greater glory.
“I’ve seen a lot of Thai players turn professional early, but now I think a lot of people know it’s worth going to college,” he said.
“If we go pro, that’s our life. We can’t really go back.”