AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Thaworn Wiratchant is happy by nature, and on this day his smile was as wide as the fairways at Augusta National.
He is making his Masters debut at age 46. It was a rugged road to beautiful Magnolia Lane, as it was for the three players from Thailand who preceded him.
Golf was merely a means for survival. Thaworn picked up balls on the practice range until he was 13 and old enough to caddie. He learned to play with only a pitching wedge, and it was years before he had pieced together enough clubs to call it a full set. He became good enough to turn pro at age 21, and it wasn't long before he started winning, first in Thailand and then on the Asian Tour.
It all was worth it when Thaworn received a phone call in January inviting him to play in the Masters.
"It's a dream," Thaworn said, tapping his heart at the thought of the invitation. "I never thought I would get the chance."
Standing on the first tee on a quiet Sunday afternoon for his first practice round, Thaworn gazed down the first fairway. Was it everything he imagined? He smiled broadly without taking his eyes off the golf course until it was time to hit. With a distinctive swing — hands are high above his head at the top of his swing — he belted a tee shot toward the fairway bunker and was on his way.
Thailand had gone 35 years since its first player, Sukree Onsham, last played at Augusta. Now, Thaworn is the third Thai in the last five years in the Masters.
Thongchai Jaidee was invited in 2006 and earned his way back in 2010 from being top 50 in the world. Prayad Marksaeng was invited in 2008, and he worked his way into the top 50 to earn a spot in 2009.
None of them had it easy.
Thongchai's only club was the worn head of a Wilson 3-iron that he attached to a bamboo stick, his only club for two years. Prayad grew up in poverty, sleeping with 10 siblings in the upper room of a two-story house. He drove a three-wheel taxi for six hours in the morning, caddied, and then sold vegetables in the train station. His first club was a piece of metal attached to a stick, with a worn bicycle tire as the grip.
"If you want to be good, you have to work hard," Thaworn said through an interpreter.
Thaworn has won 15 times on the Asian Tour, the most of any player, and he won the Order of Merit last year. He was the highest-ranked Thai when he received the invitation. Thongchai since has moved past him and nearly qualified for the Masters on his own. A third Thai, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, recently joined them among the top 100 in the world when he won the Malaysian Open.
"It's really cool to see these guys," said Tiger Woods, whose mother is Thai. "I've been there a bunch of times and have seen the golfing programs really grow. Golf wasn't a sport that anyone ever played. It was for the very, very elite. But it's neat to see these guys who have worked so hard, work themselves up through caddie programs or just find a stick and a ball and try and make something work. There's a lot to be said about that. They know and they understand work ethic, and they go to it."
Augusta National long has had an eye toward Asia, an emerging force in golf. That's one reason it joined with the Royal & Ancient to create the Asia Pacific Amateur, which awards a spot in the Masters to the winner. Guan Tianlang, a 14-year-old from China, won last year and is the youngest player ever at the Masters.
Thaworn speaks very limited English, enough to say "green jacket" when asked about the Masters, and "Tom Watson" when asked his favorite player.
His inspiration, however, was Sukree, the first Thai to play in the Masters in 1970.
Sukree is living in Bangkok and still competes in a few two-day events for those 70 and older. The only memento he brought home from Augusta was a plate with the Masters logo, though he's not sure where it is. His memory of his two appearances, however, is vivid.
"I was so excited and so proud to be the first Thai to play the Masters," Sukree said. "I remember seeing so many audiences even in the practice round on Tuesday. The crowd got even bigger during the competition. I had to admit that I have never seen so many fans before."
He played his first round with Dave Stockton, who later that year won his first major at the PGA Championship.
"The only thing that I recall is that I bowed to him on the first tee because I wanted him to feel comfortable," Stockton said. "And then he birdied the first hole. And I think he might have made eagle on the second hole. And in my mind I'm thinking, 'Forget this, you better start playing because this guy is not too overwhelmed.'"
Like the other Thais who eventually followed his path, Sukree began as a caddie and learned to play by watching. During the Vietnam War, he said an American military officer often came to the Hua Hin district in Thailand to play golf. He saw that Sukree had potential and gave him a set of clubs, and Sukree began taking it seriously.
He doesn't remember why he was worthy of an invitation to play in the Masters, perhaps because he was runner-up in the World Cup in Singapore in 1969. And he had no idea that some 40 years later, a Thai playing at Augusta National would not be that unusual.
"I'm happy that we will have more and more Thais playing the Masters," he said. "Three of them have made fame for the nation, from European and Asian tours. I knew that someday there would be more Thais playing the Masters ... and that day has arrived.
"I know all of them. I feel proud that they can play there," he said. "I have no idea if I was their inspiration because it was a long time ago. I just knew that one day where would be other Thais playing in the Masters."
Sukree never made the cut in his two appearances. He shot 78-84 in 1970, finishing ahead of only former Masters and U.S. Open champion Ralph Guldahl, who was 58. A year later, he shot 77-78 and missed the cut by five shots.
No Thai has made it to the weekend at Augusta. Prayad opened with a 70 in 2009, only to follow with an 84.
As long as it took to get here, and as hard as he worked, Thaworn has modest goals. Wearing a green jacket is not among them — just the mention of winning made him smile and shake his head as if that were too much to ask.
''If I made the cut," he said, "it would make me happy."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.