It’s not just a stunning trophy and the bragging right of being called the top amateur of the region that the field of 120 players will be after when the 13th edition of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) is played at the Amata Spring Country Club in Chonburi, Thailand, from October 27-30.
A big motivation for these amateurs from 39 different countries and territories is what they consider the ‘ultimate prize’ – invitations to the 2023 Masters and the 151st Open Championship – that will be earned by the champion two weeks from now.
A new champion will be crowned after Sunday’s final round – reigning champion Keita Nakajima has turned professional – and there are several contenders to fill in the rather immense shoes of the Japanese star, who was the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR) number one player for 87 weeks.
Following are five players who should be in contention this year…
Ratchanon ‘TK’ Chantananuwat
Country – Thailand; Age – 15; WAGR – No. 12
A friend of the hottest player in world golf – Korea’s Joohyung (Tom) Kim – Chantananuwat is the current world record holder of being the youngest male winner of an Official World Golf Ranking tournament. In April this year, about 65 kilometres south of Amata Spring, the Grade 11 student beat Kim by two shots to win the Trust Golf Asian Mixed Cup at Siam Country Club at the age of 15 years, one month and six days.
Kim is now a two-time PGA Tour champion, Presidents Cup sensation and the No. 15 player in the world, and Chantananuwat is acutely aware that an AAC win would help him play two of the four majors alongside the Korean.
Chantananuwat has consistently tested his mettle against the professionals this year, making the cut in nine of his 11 OWGR starts. Apart from his Asian Mixed Cup win, he also finished third in the Singapore International, where he lost to Kim by two shots. On the amateur circuit in 2022, his best finish has been runner-up in the R&A Junior Open and a fourth place in the 31st Southeast Asian Games.
Country – China; Age – 17; WAGR – No. 16
Usually, 15-year-olds are rarely disappointed with what they do, but it is a measure of how seriously Ding takes his golf that he looks back at his debut AAC appearance in Shanghai in 2019 with “a lot of regrets.”
Ding expected much better than his eventual T-45 finish in 2019, but the Chinese star, now 17, has the chance of redemption as he comes into the 13th edition high on confidence.
In 2021, Ding won the China Amateur title for a third consecutive time and also became the youngest winner on the China Tour when he won the Boao Classic at 16 years, five months and 13 days.
In July this year, Ding became the first male player from China to win a USGA Championship when he triumphed in the U.S. Junior Amateur at Bandon Dunes. The 6-foot-four Arizona State University commit was eight-up with eight holes to play, before winning 3&2 in the final against Caleb Surratt.
He already has earned a start in the 2023 U.S. Open and his goal this week is to add the Masters and The Open to his playing schedule.
Country – Australia; Age – 20; WAGR – No. 23
The Western Australian star, who was born in Scotland before moving to Perth, has had one of the most successful years of anyone in the field.
In August, McKinney opened with a nine-under par 63 and won the first stage of the DP World Tour Qualifying School in Portugal by five shots. A Tour card is still some distance away, but even if he secures one, the decision to turn professional will be delayed if he triumphs in Thailand.
His three wins this year have come in tournaments with incremental influence. He first won the regional South Australian Amateur Classic in March, followed by the national-level Australian Amateur Championship in April. In June, he shot a final-round 65 to clinch the prestigious international St Andrews Links Trophy on the Old Course. The Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship would seem like a natural progression.
It will be McKinney’s second AAC appearance. In Dubai last year, he was second after the second round, but eventually finished T-18.
Country – Singapore; Age – 25; WAGR – No. 54
Leow has been one of the standout performers in college and amateur golf this year, helping Arizona State University finish second in the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championships. He also won the individual title at the Thunderbird Collegiate, thus following in the footsteps of ASU legends like Phil Mickelson and Jon Rahm.
In July, Leow was part of winning International Arnold Palmer Cup team in Switzerland and won the Pacific Coast Amateur title in Oregon by two shots, with Caleb Surratt once again losing out to another player from the Asia-Pacific region.
In September, Leow was in brilliant form in marching to the Round of 16 in the U.S. Mid Am, but he recovered quickly from the disappointment of not reaching the quarterfinals and advanced through the first stage of Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School.
The Singaporean said his father taught him to treat the golf course well by repairing pitch marks and filling divots with sand, because “it’ll give you good bounces and help you with your game”. A good bounce is always an advantage on the golf course, but the way Leow is playing right now, he probably won’t have to depend on lucky breaks in Thailand.
Country – Hong Kong; Age – 21; WAGR – No. 70
Last year in Dubai, 21-year-old Kho came agonizingly close to a dream AAC win when weekend rounds of 64 and 65 helped him catch the WAGR number one Nakajima and force a playoff. The Hong Kong player’s spirited charge finally ended on the second extra hole where the Japanese star made a long birdie putt and clinched the title.
That evening, he said he’d love to go one step better in the tournament and “it would be an amazing honor to become the first player from Hong Kong to win an AAC title”. Kho will get that opportunity at Amata Spring as he makes his third appearance in the championship.
The University of Notre Dame fifth-year student finished runner-up at the Augusta Haskins Award Invitational the week before the Masters earlier this year. He now seems ready for a nice step-up to compete at the most famous golf course in Augusta. He has played several Asian Tour events this year, consistently making cuts. His best finish has been a T-11 finish at the Mandiri Indonesia Open.