Like most 15-year-olds, Ratchanon “TK” Chantananuwat thinks about school, exams, and college plans.
But Ratchanon is not like most kids his age – he’s already a history-making amateur golfer competing against some of the game’s best professionals.
In April – five weeks on from his 15th birthday – he made international headlines when he became the youngest male player to win on a major Tour, claiming the $750,000 Trust Golf Asian Mixed Cup in his native Thailand.
Golf’s greatest-ever prodigies
This month, he is studying for important biology and economics exams, a stress he’s had to juggle with representing his country at the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, in Vietnam.
It’s a balancing act of daunting proportions, but an unfazed Ratchanon has a point to prove.
“It gets a little bit hard sometimes, but I enjoy the challenge,” he told CNN. “I love to do well in both and prove all the doubters wrong.
“Apparently if you’re an athlete, you can’t do good in school. I’m trying to change that.”
Victory on the Asian Tour 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 – he became the youngest player to make the cut in the history of the All Thailand Golf Tour, in August 2020.
And incredibly, he came agonizingly close to winning an Asian Tour event even sooner, finishing third in his first international pro event at the Singapore International in January.
Ratchanon’s golfing origin story reads like a comic book. Having begun playing with plastic clubs and balls at the age of three, TK – a nickname twinning his parent’s initials – finished last in his first tournament at four years old.
“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 following a month of intense training under the tutelage of a similarly competitive, golf-loving father, he got his hands on the trophy at the next attempt.
At his first Junior World event a year later, motivational messages were inscribed on chairs at each tee. “Winners never quit and quitters never win,” read one, a motto that exemplifies Ratchanon’s mentality and work ethic.
His father acts as his caddie as well as a third coach, putting in extra hours with his son to build upon lessons from two other coaches. On days without school, an already intensive practice regime ramps up another level, the youngster spending anywhere between seven and nine hours on the course honing his craft.
Warned against exhaustion, Ratchanon has started to take off the occasional half day – spending the time on tutoring, physiotherapy or fitness – but shrugs off any suggestion of burnout.
“I don’t see it happening. I love golf. I love practicing,” 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 that one good shot or just a good result, I think it pays off for me.”
And who better to oversee Ratchanon’s ascent than compatriot Thongchai Jaidee, an Asian Tour legend with 20 professional wins to his name. The 52-year-old icon has helped the youngster with various aspects of his game since their first meeting in 2019.
When Ratchanon wanted to learn his hero’s spinning chip, the pair spent the next three weeks practicing the technique for six hours a day.
“He’s been helping me so much with my game. He’s a great guy,” Ratchanon said. “I think he just enjoys helping developing Thai golfers for the future of Thai golf.”
Thongchai has also helped mold the mental side of the teen’s game, helping him implement a routine to overcome dips in performance 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” tag and rubbing shoulders with the sport’s elite, the 15-year-old simply replies, “I enjoy it.”
“I’m not feeling pressured … I’m not scared of playing with good people,” he said.
“No one’s really pushed it on me and I’m very fortunate that I have a lot of good people around me who will help support me and keep me in line.”
It’s an attitude helping Ratchanon to take things one step at a time. Keen not to rush the jump to the professional game, he is laser-focused on finishing school with a flourish.
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Ratchanon is already dreaming of studying physics at a college in the US, maintaining his golf balancing act on the side. He is keen to follow the examples set by Colin Morikawa and Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA respectively before tasting major glory.
“I’ve seen a lot of Thai players turn pro early, but now I think a lot of people know that going to college is worth their while,” he said.
“If we turn pro, this is our life. We can’t really turn back.”