All over the golfing world, people marvel at the precocious talent of players such as Ryo Ishikawa, No Seung-Yul, Rory McIlroy, Matteo Manassero and Lexi Thompson. Every one of these players knows what it is to have won big in the professional arena while still in his or her teens.
Yet, for Gerry Norquist, the Thai national coach, and others like him, the success of the above can spell trouble. Though the girls who come under Norquist’s wing are more likely to take a longer-term view, the boys want to turn professional today. And never mind that they are no more than 14 or 15.
“All over Asia,” says Norquist, who was the senior vice-president of the Asian Tour before he took up his present post two years ago, “the boys’ side of things is shocking. They see Rory, Matteo and the top Asian youngsters and they want to be like them.”
This winner of the 1999 Malaysian Open does not dispute the fact that Asian juniors are often dripping with talent. Indeed, he says, proudly, that his Thai contingent catches the eye wherever they play. It is simply that they are nowhere near as advanced as Matteo and McIlroy would have been at their age.
“It would be different,” he continued, “if they had trophy cabinets stacked with national and international trophies. As it is, they think it entirely enough to have won a couple of amateur events in Southeast Asia. At the same time, they have this funny, indescribable feeling that they will become better players simply by turning professional. It’s such an unrealistic sentiment.”
Norquist is understandably exasperated when he mentions one youngster who missed the cut both in last year’s Asian Amateur and this year’s edition but is still planning to switch to the professional ranks before the year is out.
“I had goals to achieve before I turned pro,” he said. “I know that if I had spent the last three or four months shooting in the 80s, I would have recognised that I wasn’t ready.”
He feeds his disbelieving charges plenty of statistics. He tells them how they could all qualify for scholarships worth in the region of $200,000 were they only to view a U.S. college as the place to develop their games instead of the local professional tour in Thailand; and he tells them how, in 2010, 23 players out of the top 25 on the PGA Tour took the college route.
Norquist, who was born and brought up in Portland, Ore., was hugely encouraged when one of his boys recently accepted a scholarship at Texas A&M and eschewed the Asian Amateur in order to sit his SAT exams. Then, to his horror, he heard that the lad had changed his mind.
On the girls’ side of things, five of the players Norquist has coached have lapped up such scholarships and two more have recently signed letters of intent. The richly gifted Jutanugarn sisters – Ariya and Moriya – though they mostly do things their own way, are two more for whom college is a consideration. Moriya is apparently talking to coaches at the moment.
Norquist understands that there are financial constraints for some families who cannot afford to keep their offspring at school, let alone contribute to what it would cost to have them flying to and from the States for four years. And he understands, too, how difficult it is for these parents when there are sponsorship offers on the table.
“What they don’t realise,” he says, “is that if their child fails to make a seamless switch to the professional game, sponsors will probably lose interest and turn their attention elsewhere. I can think of so many Asian juniors who were meant to be the next ‘phenom’ but for whom it never worked out.”
Some Asian teenagers speak darkly of how they have to interrupt their golfing careers to do military service, but in Norquist’s opinion, that can be the best possible alternative to a college career.
He cites Thongchai Jaidee, who has won four times on the European Tour. Jaidee, who joined the Royal Thai Army in 1989, spent 10 years as a paratrooper before turning professional.
“Thongchai has done things his own way,” says Norquist. “Thais tend to stay in a group but he learned to be independent in his army years and then he learned to speak English. He is a huge credit to Thai golf.”
Norquist’s under 18s would not seem to see Jaidee’s way as relevant. They only have eyes for what is happening with the younger stars.
“The last thing I want,” says the coach, “is to take away their dream. I never say ‘No way!’ when they tell me they are going to turn professional. All I ask is that that they take a step back and consider the best means of getting to where they want to be.”