Thongchai Jaidee lands on his feet
Thongchai Jaidee reckons his years spent as a paratrooper in the Royal Thai Army were good preparation for playing golf.
After all, if you have the strength of mind to jump out of an airplane for a living, there's a good chance you are mentally tough enough to cope with the rigours of the Royal and Ancient game.
"I joined the army when I was 19 and stayed in for 11 years," reveals the two-time Maybank Malaysian Open defending champion. "It's compulsory in Thailand for men to be in the military for two years, but I chose to continue.
"I was a paratrooper and mental discipline was part of what I did. I jumped out of perfectly good airplanes voluntarily! It required discipline, focus and a good work ethic. I use those same principles and apply them to my golf preparation and play.
"I believe that the strongest part of my game is the mental part. I'm a long hitter, but I really believe that the mental part is what separates me from some of the other players. A lot of players hit the ball a long way, as I do, but my big strength is in the mind."
Thongchai's approach has certainly paid off. Now 36, he ranks as one of Asia's best-ever golfers, with seven Asian Tour victories to his name.
And he will tee off at next week's Maybank Malaysian Open at the Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club aiming for a slice of history - to become the first Asian player to win the same European Tour event three years in a row.
If successful, he would joint a select band of five golfers - Ian Woosnam (Monte Carlo Open, 1990-92), Nick Faldo (Irish Open, 1991-93), Colin Montgomerie (PGA Championship, 1998-00), Tiger Woods (WGC-NEC Invitational, 1999-01) and Ernie Els (Heineken Classic, 2002-04) - to achieve the feat.
Already, Thongchai is the first Asian to retain a European Tour title - an impressive achievement considering he was a late beginner in the sport as he grew up in Lop Buri, two hours north of Bangkok.
He might not have taken up golf at all but for a freak accident that left a wooden skewer embedded in his foot when he was 13. Until then he'd dreamed of being a professional footballer and had played for his home province.
While recovering, Thongchai and some friends sneaked into the Army Golf Club behind his home. There, he found the discarded head of a five iron, tied it to a bamboo stick and began practicing.
He played his first nine holes at the age of 16 and continued playing throughout his time in the army.
"After my two years of mandatory service ended, I stayed in the army for nine more years so I could get access to a course and pursue my dream of becoming a pro," he reveals.
"Even though I was a paratrooper, the army let me spend most of my time working on my game. I'd run seven miles every morning, then practice for up to 12 hours. I turned pro in 1999, the year after winning the Thailand Amateur Championship."
His first Malaysian Open success, at Kuala Lumpur's Saujana Golf Club two years ago, was a two-shot victory over Australian Brad Kennedy.
That triumph earned him a two-year exemption on the European Tour and a personal audience with Thailand's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who gave him a diplomatic passport to make it easier to move between European countries.
Twelve months ago, he returned to Saujana and finished three shots clear of India's Jyoti Randhawa.
Next, he will be going for his hat-trick when the Maybank Malaysian Open - again co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours and promoted by Parallel Media Asia - takes place on February 16-19.
Thongchai might be a golfing celebrity these days with millions in the bank and a comfortable lifestyle but, sometimes, the hardened paratrooper in him resurfaces.
Five years ago, while playing in the US Open at Southern Hills Country Club In Tulsa, Oklahoma, he could not get comfortable in his luxurious hotel.
"I had to sleep on the floor, because the mattress was too soft," he recalls. "I was spending US$200 a night on the room and there I was sleeping on the floor with a towel under my head!"
So, if Thongchai is in contention in the final round of next week's Malaysian Open, don't expect him to fold easily. After all, he's tough enough to look after himself.
February 11, 2006