They have all the toys in trendy Thonglor. Bangkok’s premier catwalk is where things coagulate for the see and be seen crowd – the high society scions known simply as “hi-sos.”
Thonglor Soi 55 is a gilded strip roughly 2.5 kilometers in length and chock full of chic cafes, stylishly and pulsating nightclubs, criminally overpriced condos and an endless procession of dazzling Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
Thailand’s bastion of conspicuous consumption is also a place where Kiradech Aphibarnrat would seem right at home.
He certainly has all the toys, and then some. His garage is littered with Porsches and Lamborghinis, while his closets can hardly contain his 20 or so pairs of Kayne West’s limited edition Yeezy sneakers, at about US$2,000 a pop, and the three or four drawers storing some of the world’s most expensive timepieces.
Having gone to the same schools and shopped at the same stores, Kiradech definitely knows his share of hi-sos and is acquainted with their haunts. But as entitled and exalted as Thonglor may be, it will never be confused as a breeding ground for top end international sportsmen, which is exactly what Kiradech is.
Not only is he now the number 42 ranked golfer in the world – one year ago he was 29th – he is now the first Thai PGA Tour member.
What sets Kiradech apart from the drunk-on-designer’s crowd is not just his sporting accomplishments, but the way he achieved it. Like them he was born into privilege – his father owned an ice factory. But the entitled rich kid lifestyle never sat easy with him.
“Life was too easy for them, so they didn’t have that drive to succeed,” he told an interviewer last year. “I didn’t want that to be me.”
So against all odds and with dogged perseverance, Kiradech molded himself into an elite golfer. From the age of 8 on, his life was nothing but golf.
He would come back from school at 3 pm and then head straight to the driving range until returning home to eat and sleep at 9 pm. And while the baby fat never burned off for the portly Kiradech, he was blessed with an uncanny ability to strike the ball sweetly on every stroke despite an unconventional swing that went way past parallel.
It was the type of swing they would never teach in golf schools, but maybe they should. At 14 he won his age group at the Junior World Golf Championships and defended his title the following year. At 19, he turned professional and started playing on both the Asian and Japan Tour before winning his first tournament by 11 strokes at 20.
Today at 29, he has garnered a global following thanks to his jovial nature and ample girth. In a sport swelling with largely robotic fitness freaks, Kiradech is a breath of fresh air, even if that air is a cloud of vapor smoke.
Like many of his generation, he is an avowed vape fan who has endeared himself to that youthful demographic by unabashedly chucking clouds on the golf course. Combined with his prodigious tee shots and bulk, he has long been called the Asian John Daly. But unlike the one-time wild man, he is not nearly as self-destructive.
He’s just being himself, says Kiradech, a fun-loving, respectful young man enjoying life. Ironically, golf needs him as much as he needs it. With his portly waistline and wild swing, he is one of us – the everyday man with a transcendent appeal.
Still, none of this works unless he is successful on the golf course and for the former Asian Tour No 1 the best may be yet to come. “Not only is he the nicest person you’re ever going to meet, he has one of my favorite swings on tour,” says Australia’s former Masters champ Adam Scott. “It’s great that the larger golf world is starting to recognize him.”
Kiradech was only four strokes behind the leaders after two rounds at this year’s Masters before falling awkwardly and reinjuring his troublesome knee. He would go on to finish tied for 49th at Augusta and this past weekend was forced to pull out of an event in Brunei because of lingering pain.
Kiradech claims he will be fine in two weeks’ time when the best golfers in the world descend on Bethpage Black in Long Island for the PGA Championship, the second major of the year. But as he approaches his 30th birthday, the undue stress of hauling all that excess weight around golf courses for the last 20 years inevitably will take its toll.
Fortunately, he is getting a bit leaner and availing himself to a fitness regime because while it’s great that he embraces his larger than life persona, it would be a pity if the career of the man known in Thailand as “Arm” was derailed before it could truly take off.
While Thai women golfers have begun to enjoy a great deal of success, the list of prominent Thai men in any international sport begins and ends with Kiradech. He knows it as well and is very conscious of repaying the debt to his family and country.
His father was so consumed with helping his young son succeed at golf that he neglected his ice company, which would eventually go out of business. By the time he was 15, Kiradech wanted to be the breadwinner and still does today. He bought the driving range he grew up on in northern Bangkok and uses it to help train the next generation of Thai golfers.
But while people come from all over the world to play on Thailand’s tropical and exotic courses, there is no public golf culture in the country. The green fees cost more than most Thais make in a month, so growing the game is all relative.
However, they can still see Arm on TV and follow his global success. They can see how he represents Thailand with dignity and respect. They can see how well he treats people regardless of status and still revel in his success.
His profile may be lofty but his joy and empathy are contagious. It’s important for Kiradech to continue to inspire and to maintain his health because at this stage, it would certainly be a shame if it all went up in smoke.