KUALA LUMPUR: With a first name being a headline-writer’s dream and a surname twisting tongues for even for the best of sports announcers, Thai golfer Jazz Janewattananond (pronounced as Jane-wa-taar-na-non) has become one of the most talked-about young and exciting talents to burst onto the golf scene in the past 12 months.
Aged 23, Jazz, which is a nickname given by his father who happens to be a ‘jazz’ music lover, has hit more than a few high notes in winning two co-sanctioned Asian Tour and Japan Golf Tour tournaments and notched 10 other top-10s.
He is on the cusp of breaking into the world’s top-50 – he currently lies in 57th place at the time of writing – and those who have followed his progress closely since he emerged as a wide-eyed 14-year-old kid will vouch that he has the talent, ethics and a swagger, which is mixed with a genuine down-to-earth attitude, to be golf’s next big rock star from Asia.
As a case in point, a day after securing his third and probably biggest career victory yet at the SMBC Singapore Open in January, where he defeated a field which featured Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey, Jazz went straight into the gym and practice range in his hometown of Hua Hin upon his return as he simply wanted to improve.
“I got home, had dinner with my family and then went back out to practice,” said Jazz, whose first name is “Atiwit”.
Such is his single-minded dedication that the slender Thai with boyish good looks has worked his way up the world order that even Presidents Cup International Team Captain Ernie Els has taken notice. “I’ve played with him in Malaysia. I’m really impressed with his game, very controlled, a good putter and good attitude,” said the Big Easy.
A commendable T14 finish at the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in May where he entered the final round in T2 left American fans with a first glimpse of Jazz’s potential, as well as put many in a bind as to how to pronounce his name! Later in August, he finished two rungs outside the top-8 which would have secured an automatic place in Els’ squad to face the United States at The Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Australia in December. Even if the young Thai doesn’t get in as a captain’s pick, many believe he will remain in Presidents Cup conversations for years to come.
He grew up as a scrawny kid whose first sporting involvement was swimming. When others outgrew and outpaced him in the pool, he tried playing football but gave that up too as he got kicked and outmuscled. He then tried golf after his father, a Thai judge, encouraged him to hit balls. “My dad had overseas friends visiting and they played golf. I remember getting into a buggy and I wanted to drive but dad told me to start hitting golf balls,” said Jazz, who now stands at 1.75m and weighs a lightweight 68kgs.
“I began hitting balls when I was about eight and then started playing in one-day tournaments. I liked the competition aspect and kept going and got pretty good.”
He wrote a slice of history at the 2010 Asian Tour International on home soil by becoming the youngest ever at 14 years of age to make the halfway cut on the Asian Tour. It was after this feat that Jazz began to think about a professional golf career despite growing up in a family comprising of high achievers. “My sisters and cousins are doctors, or currently studying to become doctors. There are almost 10 who are doctors or judges in the family … except me. I’m guess I’m the weird one,” he laughed.
With his parents’ blessings, Jazz joined the professional ranks a day before turning 15 and cut his teeth on the local Thai circuit and Asian Tour. With his mother chaperoning him whenever he travelled out of country, which was a requirement by law, he found some success early on, posting 10 top-10 finishes on the Asian Tour before losing his card at the end of 2016. It prompted Jazz to spend two weeks in a Buddhist monastery where he learned to become a monk – a ritual common amongst young Thais as a mark of respect to their parents.
A few months later at the 2017 Bangladesh Open, Jazz found his winning rhythm with a first career victory on the Asian Tour and he credited his time in the monastery for the success. “I prayed and chanted every day in the temple. I felt really peaceful. Golf used to be everything but now, I’m just happy I get to play in tournaments,” he said.
Ultimately, he dreams of joining Kiradech Aphibarnrat on the PGA TOUR but he is prepared to bide his time. “That’s my goal … hopefully in the near future,” he said. “Kiradech is my inspiration. I stayed with him at The Open last year, got close to him and practiced with him. He’s the first Thai on the PGA TOUR and he always says I can do it too. A lot of young guys are playing golf now because of him. He’s like a big brother and shows me things.”
Being young, Jazz aspires to be the best he can become and has no qualms in putting in the long hours at the practice range to get to his final destination. “It’s my job, my life and I enjoy it,” he said. “I’m going to do this for the rest of my life. I want to be a regular on the PGA TOUR, playing there week in and week out. That’s where I want to be.”
Jazz’s father, Judge Kajorndej Janewattananond, has allowed his son to venture out on his own accord without being directly involved in his career decisions. “We believe he should learn to make his own decisions. Like a bird, we nurtured him when he was young but now that he is an adult, he has to fly on his own.”
While some may have deemed his PGA Championship as a disappointment after he fell off the leaderboard with a closing 77, he took it all in his stride. “What happened is good because I’m only 23, playing in my second major,” he told the media. “If I finished too good, I could be lazy, I could be thinking I was a big shot. That humbled me. Now I know I need to work a lot harder.”
And hard work is certainly something Jazz is not afraid of doing as he attempts to rock the world’s golfing order.
* Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, communications of the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur