Kiradech Aphibarnrat has competed on American soil in some 30-plus tournaments previously. The next one will give him the most pride and joy.
When the 29-year-old arrives for the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Club in San Diego from January 24 to 27, it will mark his first PGA TOUR start in the new calendar year as Thailand’s first golfer to hold a PGA TOUR card.
“I’m very excited as I’ll be playing in the tournament through my PGA TOUR status,” said Kiradech.
“I’m not in the field through the world ranking … I earned my TOUR card last year and I’m looking forward to my first year on the PGA TOUR. It feels like a new world to me.”
The burly Thai enjoyed a stellar campaign last season, with top-five finishes at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship and World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play helping him create a small slice of golf history as he earned his TOUR card through the non-member category. He also finished T13 at the Memorial Tournament, T15 at the U.S. Open and T30 at THE PLAYERS Championship.
Kiradech couldn’t have planned his first PGA TOUR start for 2019 any better. As an aspiring amateur golfer, he finished T3, T12 and T8 in the Junior World Golf Championships at Torrey Pines in the 15-17 age-group from 2005 to 2007 respectively. He also won the 13-14 age-group twice in 2003-2004 at Cottonwood at Rancho San Diego Golf Club.
“It’ll be good to play in Torrey Pines again. It’s like the place where I started my amateur golf career. To go back and play there will be fun. If I can finish well at the Farmers Insurance Open, that would be a good start and help build my momentum and confidence going into the new year,” said Kiradech.
“I’ve got good memories as a kid playing in the San Diego area. I competed against guys like Tony Finau, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and now I’m going back there to play against the same players. I didn’t imagine this happening when I was growing up.”
Kiradech and his wife, Tunyatorn, have found a home in Orlando, which is a short drive from fellow Thai LPGA Tour stars Ariya and Moriya Jutanugarn. He will practice at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club, which many PGA TOUR stars are based at, including his close friend Byeonghun An of Korea, Ian Poulter of England and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson.
“We are five minutes away from the sisters. I think it’s never easy to leave home (Thailand), you’ve got to deal with the different culture, different kind of food and being near them will be better for my game and family. My wife will help cook Thai food for sure and we’ll hang out with the sisters when we’re all in Orlando,” said Kiradech, who holds four European Tour wins and was the 2013 Asian Tour Order of Merit champion.
A T4 finish at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in Shanghai and T33 at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia, which formed part of the early 2018-19 PGA TOUR Season last October, has given Kiradech a head-start in the FedExCup points race where he currently sits in 58th position.
“It was nice to have a good start and there won’t be so much pressure as I’ve got some FedExCup points already. I hope to keep my card for a second season which should then make things a bit easier. There are a lot of great players on the PGA TOUR and I need to be consistent, scramble better and make more birdies to compete against the world-class players,” said the 37th ranked golfer in the world.
“The biggest goal is to win on the PGA TOUR this year. Win for myself, for my family and my country. It won’t be easy, but I have worked hard over the last few years and I’ve given myself some chances. I’m not far off from winning,” added the Thai, who has also placed top priority to fight his way into the International Team to face the United States in the Presidents Cup at The Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Australia in December.
The only downside about setting up a new base in America for Kiradech is the fact that he has to leave behind his fleet of superfast cars in Bangkok. In recent years, driving has become a form of relaxation for the fun-loving Thai whenever he is not on Tour.
“I’m going to miss my cars,” he said. “I worked hard for those cars, I’m like a kid when it comes to cars. In my first year in Orlando, I’ll get a SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle). If I extend my card for another season, or if I do well this year, then maybe I will reward myself with a supercar in the U.S.”
Kiradech learned the game when he was eight by following his businessman father, Panupong, to the driving range. Panupong wanted Kiradech to learn the sport so that his son would avoid choosing the “wrong path.”
In quick time, Kiradech, who previously went by the name Anujit Hirunratanakorn, got hooked to the sport and spent countless of hours at the practice range. A young Kiradech, who enjoyed watching the cartoon “Popeye”, then began flexing his muscles and won the Junior World Golf Championships 13-14 boys’ age-group in 2003 and 2004 in San Diego.
He represented his country in regional and international competitions before turning professional in 2008, at age 18. He won his first professional tournament on the Thai Tour in 2009, first Asian Tour title in 2011 and first European Tour-sanctioned tournament in 2013, the year he also became the Asian Tour Order of Merit champion.
It was also the same year where he made his first big splash on the PGA TOUR, finishing T3 in the CIMB Classic in Malaysia which is his best finish yet on TOUR. Five years later, and now entrenched firmly in the world’s top-50 ranking, Kiradech, who has been referred to as Asia’s John Daly due to his burly physique and grip it-and-rip it style of play, is now living his dream of competing full time on the PGA TOUR.
“It is a dream come true and I hope I can make my country proud with my achievements,” said Kiradech.