Thai golfers eye clean sweep
But Singapore can deny them with home-course advantage
The 2016 South-east Asian Amateur Golf Team Championship tees off at Tanah Merah Country Club's Garden Course today and Thailand will be bidding to sweep all four team titles on offer for the first time.
After the opening ceremony yesterday, Thailand team manager Kanes Nitiwanakul told The New Paper: "Yes, we are aiming to win all four - the Putra Cup (men), Lion City Cup (male juniors), Santi Cup (ladies) and Kartini Cup (female juniors).
"But it won't be easy as we have strong opponents from the other six countries involved (Hong Kong, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore) and we respect the home-court advantage which Singapore have."
Thailand's Ekpharit Wu, a 16-year-old who won last year's Lion City Cup, added: "I believe in my teammates that we have the quality to win all four cups.
"We have a strong team who have practised very hard almost every day and we have good teamwork."
The Thais were prevented a clean sweep at home last year when the Philippines won the Kartini Cup team title, with Yuka Saso picking up the individual title in the same event, while Singapore's Gregory Foo took home the Putra Cup individual title.
Since the turn of the millennium, only Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have managed to win a sprinkle of individual and team events as Thailand have traditionally dominated golf in the region.
The key to Thailand's golfing excellence, even at junior level, has been a well-coordinated effort to unearth and groom young golfers.
Philippines coach Carlos Vincent Coscolluela III said: "After six weeks of extensive preparations, we believe we can challenge and win in each of the four cups, otherwise we won't be here.
"But we have to recognise Thailand as the strongest team in the competition.
"They have had great funding by Singha, an extensive development programme, and they have really raised the bar in South-east Asia."
Kanes, who is also the director of Thailand's national team development, revealed that there are more than 10 youth tournaments held across the kingdom where promising golfers may be recruited into the national team.
There is also a five-day centralised national team training every month to evaluate the young players' progress and assess which areas they need further improvement.
"Annually, we also send the juniors abroad for more than 20 competitions a year," said Kanes, who tipped 16-year-old Santi Cup player Pajaree Anannarukarn, already a two-time winner on the Thai LPGA Tour, for future stardom.
"If the kids play more tournaments, they will improve. We are fortunate to have Singha as very supportive sponsors who invest around US$400,000 ($540,000) per year for our junior programmes."
Singapore coach Andrew Welsford also feels that the rest of Asean lacks the competitive golf culture which the Thais have cultivated.
"I've heard that their junior female golfers play a lot against the boys and there's a need to create a much more competitive culture here," said the 44-year-old Australian.
"One way is to create an inter-club competition for junior golfers, something that's lacking at the moment here. Clubs may also want to look at giving scholarships to promising golfers who may not be able to afford membership.
"Thailand have the depth, we need to build our pool. That said, we are here to win the competition this week and we believe we can. Anything less will be an unsuccessful outing for us."
While Foo agreed that, with their strength in depth, the Thais are still the favourites this year, he was confident that he and his Putra Cup teammates - Joshua Ho, Marc Ong and Joshua Shou - have what it takes to reclaim the team title they last won in 2011.
He said: "It is exciting for me to experience for the first time returning to a competition as defending champion, but we really want the Putra Cup team title badly.
"We have been playing well and we are familiar with this course, so the key to winning it is a good start and consistency throughout the team.
"In the past few years, we were always playing catch-up, so it would be good to lead for a change or at least be within striking distance.
"As the team scoring is based on the three lowest scores, we also have to perform well across the team."
Gregory Foo, Joshua Ho, Marc Ong, Joshua Shou
LION CITY CUP:
Louis Tee, Tommy Tan, Ryan Wong
Callista Chen, Amanda Tan, Jacqueline Young
Vanessa Khoo, Nicole Mok, Denise Wong