As a kid, Thongchai Jaidee dreamt of becoming a footballer, hoping that one day he would get into the Thai national team and play in the Olympics.
A freak accident though where a wooden skewer got lodged in his foot and laid him off the sport dealt Thongchai with a twist of fate that now as a 46-year-old, he will become an Olympian in a different discipline – golf.
Instead of kicking a football, the three-time Asian Tour number one will this week use his skills in getting a golf ball into a 4.25 inch-diameter hole in the least number of strokes in Rio de Janeiro. And he hopes to celebrate the occasion with an Olympic medal.
“In my life, I never thought golf would be played in the Olympics,” said Thongchai, who is the 39th ranked golfer in the world.
“I’m 47 this year and I’m looking forward to representing my country. It’s a proud moment in my career and it’s going to be amazing. The Olympics is the greatest sporting event in the world so I’m grateful to be a part of it. To be honest, I’m proud and excited to represent Thailand. If I do win a medal, it will be a plus but representing my country and Asia is what I’m really looking forward to.”
Growing up, Thongchai adored Brazilian football legend Pele but after the foot incident, he picked up golf as his wooden-structured home was next to a golf course with his first club being a makeshift three iron head stuck onto a bamboo stick.
Thongchai developed into a top amateur golfer, winning numerous tournaments across the region. During that time, he served as a ranger in the Royal Thai Army, regularly making parachute drops and enduring survival training stints in the jungle.
It toughened him up for life as a professional golfer that only a year after giving up his amateur status, Thongchai hoisted his maiden Asian Tour title at the 2000 Korean Open.
His trophy cabinet now includes 12 other Asian Tour tournament trophies, three Order of Merit titles and four pieces of silverware won on European soil including the French Open last month. But an Olympic medal will have a special place if he can hit top form this week.
“I’ve won many events in Asia and Europe and I’ve played in all the Major tournaments. The only sporting event missing from my career is playing in the Olympics so it really ranks on top of my list,” said Thongchai.
“The goal is to win in any tournament which I’m playing in but if I do win a medal at the Olympics, it will be an entirely different story. When you win for your country, the feeling is definitely better than winning for yourself.”
As one of the richest sporting personalities now in Thailand, Thongchai, who started a Foundation and golf academy in his hometown of Lopburi some years ago to give back to the sport, has no regrets that fate led him to golf’s fairways to stardom.
He hero-worshipped Pele and it no doubt is coincidental that Thongchai will make his Olympic debut in the land of Samba alongside compatriot Kiradech Aphibarnrat, the 2013 Asian Tour number one and also another football fan.
“I always wanted to play football professionally before I pursued golf. I’ve always hoped to watch our Thailand football team make it to the Olympics. I’m still waiting and I can’t wait for the day to come,” said Thongchai.
While his focus will be on trying to deliver a medal for Thailand when golf returns into the Olympic fold after a lapse of 112 years, he will also be rooting for his other compatriots, especially the boxers, to shine in Rio de Janeiro.
“I remember in 2008, Somjit Jongjohor won the gold medal in boxing and that was a proud moment for us. We’ve won a few gold medals in boxing so that has been a good sport for us. Maybe golf will be a popular sport for us in the Olympics as well,” he smiled.
Thongchai hopes to catch some other sporting action during his time in Rio and it is no surprise that football ranks high on his list. “I do not have a favourite Olympian but my favourite team is the Brazilian football team. They will be an exciting team to watch when they play in front of their home fans,” he said.