The roots of a Kansas golf resurgence were seeded on the outskirts of Bangkok, amidst the crowded neighborhoods on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
Yukaporn Kawinpakorn grew up in Samut Province, a little hamlet just 15 miles south of the heart of the city. Thanuttra Boonraksasat was from Nonthaburi, a densely populated province to the north. But really, the girls grew up on golf courses.
They played the game because they loved it. But it also meant opportunity. Maybe a career or a college scholarship. Maybe a bridge to the United States. Kawinpakorn says she didn’t think of it like that at first. No, at first, she was just like all the other young Thai girls taking up golf in the 90s and early 2000s. When Kawinpakorn was young, her father, Samai, would drop her off at the course near their home. She idolized Tiger Woods, the half-Thai superstar from the United States. So she stayed on the course for hours.
“I had nothing to do,” Kawinpakorn, “so I just had to hit the golf ball.”
More than a decade later, Kawinpakorn and Boonraksasat stood on the practice green at Lawrence Country Club on Monday afternoon, nearly 9,000 miles from home. Together they have helped lead the KU women’s golf program to its first team NCAA postseason appearance since 1990. Along with freshman teammate Pornvida Sakdee, another native of Thailand, they will open a three-day NCAA Regional on Thursday at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla.
“With our team,” KU coach Erin O’Neil says of the Thai influence, “they all grew up playing golf together and knew each other, and it just kind of happened that way.”
For O’Neil and Kansas, the Thai connection began with Boonraksasat, who goes by the nickname Fhong. Now a steady senior who had seven top-20 finishes this season, Fhong arrived in Lawrence in 2009, a shy teenager still learning the English language.
“I didn’t even know where Kansas is on a map,” says Boonraksasat, who was also a standout table tennis player growing up. “I understood probably 80 percent of what people (were) saying.”
It also took time to learn the culture. American kids, Boonraksasat says, are much more eager to leave their parents behind. But while Boonraksasat settled into the Kansas program, she also turned into a potent recruiting tool.
In college golf circles, international players have become a staple. According to the NCAA, international players made up more than 15 percent of Division I women’s golfers in 2012-13. That’s an increase from 5.8 percent in 1999-2000.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find some teams that don’t have at least one international player on their roster,” O’Neil says.
The recruiting process can become a digital affair. Players email resumes out to potential schools. O’Neil studies swing mechanics and video over the Internet. Sometimes coaches are lucky to see a player like Kawinpakorn in person in one tournament. But when O’Neil received Kawinpakorn’s information a few years ago, she knew she was about to land another solid player.
“I think they liked me or something,” says Kawinpakorn, who goes by the nickname Mook. “They offered 100 percent scholarship, and why would I say no, right?”
The Thai pipeline has worked out well for everyone. Mook, who stands close to 5-foot-2, recently carded a second-place finish at the Big 12 Championship. And Kansas is in the midst of its best season in decades.
“I give everything I got,” Kawinpakorn says. “I know I’m small, but my heart is not small.”
On Thursday, senior Meghan Potee and junior Minami Levonovich will join Fhong, Mook and Sakdee on the course in Stillwater. If the team can finish in the top eight among 24 teams, they will advance to the NCAA Championship in Tulsa, Okla.
For Mook and Fhong, though, it’s another experience to soak up.
“It’s actually my dream to come here,” Kawinpakorn says. “I love English. I don’t know why. I just wanted to learn (the) language and get to know new people and new places.
“I’ve seen a lot of good stuff here.”