Categorized | 2014, Golf Insight, January 2014, News

Tiger Fever

By: Antony Sutton

Tiger Woods

The year is 1997 and Tiger Mania is in full swing. And nowhere more so than Thailand.

He had only turned professional the year before but it seemed he had already been around for years. He had of course. Companies like Nike and Titleist don’t go round throwing money at some guy who just walked in off the street.

Tiger’s career has been well documented. Appearing on TV with Bob Hope when he was still two years old for example or beating his father for the first time, aged 11.

Most Thais became aware of Woods of course as the hype rippled round the world. But for them there was something more. His mother, Kultida, was Thai and that was enough for the golf loving Thai elite to claim Tiger as one of their own.

In early 1997 Tiger was invited to Thailand to compete in the Asia Honda Classic being played at the Thai Country Club just outside Bangkok. The mania could begin!

It all started at Don Muang airport. Exhausted after a 20 hour flight Tiger, along with his fellow first class passengers, would have been astounded to see a camera crew burst into their cabin and stick lights and cameras in his face which was being beamed live to the nation.

In the wake of the cameras followed a phalanx of politicians and businessmen keen to be among the first to have their picture taken with the rising star of golf with a Thai mother.

Hailed as one of the Asian Tigers, Thailand was on the slippery slope to financial meltdown that would come in July of the same year when the government released the national currency, the baht, from the US dollar. Left to survive alone amid a sea of currency speculators the baht, and the economy, dived spectacularly as investors raced for the exits, alarmed at the debts the Thais had built up developing their economy.

Before the party ended the Thais invested heavily in golf courses. The elite loved the game as a place to see and be seen as well as conducting deals on the fairways and in the restaurants. Golf equaled status and the they loved status. Power and wealth meant nothing if they could not be flaunted.

Tiger Woods with his motherThe Thai Country Club, designed by Denis Griffiths, was designed and built during the years of plenty. Opened in 1996 the Asia Honda Classic was their international debut. And by signing up Tiger Woods they guaranteed themselves plenty of publicity. For a cool half a million dollars they paid Tiger they probably felt it was money well spent.

It took Tiger time to adapt to Thailand. The heat and humidity strike you as soon as you leave the airport building and after the shock intrusions on his arrival you can imagine the young golfer was feeling the pressure a bit.

He quit the Pro Am on the 13th citing heat exhaustion and food poisoning, the latter somewhat ironic considering his heritage.

He recovered though in time for the main business, shooting a 70 on the first round which he more than bettered second time around when he set a course record 64 8 under par.

His final rounds were a model of consistency, 66 and 68, to finish on 268, 10 strokes clear of runner up Mo Joong-kyung. In addition to the appearance money he pocketed another $48,000 for winning.

The trip was a massive success for him. He was feted by the government, rumours at the time suggested they had granted him honorary citizenship as well invited to be an ambassador for the 1998 Asian Games which Thailand was hosting.

But not everyone fell for Tiger Fever.

Golf is only for the monied in Thailand. Courses are private and expensive. Today if you want to try and beat Tiger’s impressive 64 at the Thai Country Club it will cost you about $200 for a weekend afternoon. Way  beyond the means of most Thais.

While Prime Minister Chavalit Youngchaiyudh smiled for the endless photo opportunities and his spokesman Chingchai Mongkoltham told the world Tiger Woods was ‘important for society because we usually have pretty bad news’ others were less than enthusiastic.

‘Our government’s reaction is too much. They want to give honours to someone who is basically a foreigner while they do nothing to support our local athletes,’ said an 18 year old Thaweep Thiensai.

Certainly with just over a year to go until the Asian Games it did seem odd that while construction work was moving slowly all of a sudden the government was falling over itself about one sportsman who just happened to have a Thai mum.

The Secretary General of the Olympic Committee of Thailand, Major General Charouck Arirachakaran, would have had plenty of experience trying to get various Thai governments to do something about sports in the country and he was blunter.

‘As far as I am concerned, he is only half Thai. He takes part in every tournament as an American national and there is little positive publicity Thailand can derive out of it.’

While Tiger was seen as the good old African American stroke Thai guy who had made good, in Thailand there was a great deal of ambiguity regarding similar mixed race children.

Under Thai law at the time a Thai woman marrying a foreigner had to give up her right to own property while the children would adopt the father’s nationality. Which would have meant plenty of visa runs to Malaysia.

And yet here was the Thai government fawning over someone who, had the family stayed in the country, would have had to stay unmarried just so the son could have been classed as a Thai. The treatment dished out to Tiger was far different than the laws of the land stipulated and when it was announced Tiger would be granted citizenship there was outcry with the letters page of the English language Bangkok Post filled to overflowing at the double standards of the government.

A government spokesman denied any offer and Tiger left the country of his mother’s birth half a million dollars richer while the country headed for recession.

About Antony Sutton

I am a freelance writer who has been hanging round South East Asia for about 20 years. Unfortunately, I haven’t picked up a club in anger since my days in Bangladesh on the Kurmitola course where I benefited greatly from the words and wisdom of Nelson, the one armed caddy. Today, I keep threatening to head to the local driving range to shake off the cobwebs but haven’t yet made good with that promise. Instead I content myself with a few quiet, cold beers once in a while and helping my son become a good Arsenal fan!

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