By Harrison March
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Chonlada Chayanun knows her days teeing off for the Iowa State women’s golf team are numbered. The senior from Thailand has a chance to lead the Cyclones to their second-ever NCAA Golf Championship just a year after she took them to their first appearance in school history.
Her seventh place finish at Nationals last May earned Chayanun [pronounced SHY-uh-nin] a place in school history. The splash she made in that tournament turned out to be so large that it created a tidal wave of momentum Chayanun has ridden all the way through her final ISU campaign.
The February Big 12 Golfer of the Month has shot in the 60s five times this spring and won her first tournament title at the Lady Puerto Rico Classic by firing an ISU 54-hole record of 209.
While Chayanun, or Koy [pronounced Goy], as she is known on the team, will likely end her career as the greatest golfer in school history, her ascent to national prominence was a feat she once never dreamed of.
Growing up three hours northeast of Bangkok, Chayanun’s brother wanted to give golf a try. Chayanun had no particular interest, but that didn’t matter to her mom.
“My brother wanted to play golf and then my mom was just like, ‘Your brother plays and you should play, too,’” Chayanun recalled. “Now I’ve been playing golf for 12 years and my brother already quit. I actually didn’t think about taking golf very serious, but then when I was in Thailand I competed a lot and won so many tournaments.”
Though Koy quickly came to find more enjoyment and success than she could have imagined the first time she picked up a 9-iron, it never occurred to her that it could also serve as a means for getting an education.
Again, a nudge from mom did some good.
“My mom, she really wants me to study in the States,” Chayanun said. “[Iowa State has] a really good golf program. It’s way better than Thailand. They have a better program for everything, basically – for school, golf, fitness, workouts and stuff like that. They’re really good at this.”
Though Ames, Iowa is situated more than 8,300 miles from Chayanun’s hometown, the challenge of bringing in a player from so far away was nothing new for the coaching staff.
Head Coach Christie Martens and Assistant Coach Pina Gentile are veterans on the international recruiting grounds. Over the last 10 seasons, the Cyclone women’s golf team has seen 14 student-athletes from outside the States trek to the Midwest to join the squad.
“We’ve had a number of international kids come and our team has been pretty international throughout,” Gentile said. “I think for them it’s about the experience to be able to come to the States, have the opportunity to get an education and play golf… It’s just kind of how our recruiting style has been throughout the years.”
The triumphs of other international students showed Koy that coming to a new country was not the insurmountable undertaking it may have seemed to be initially, but the three other Cyclones from Thailand in her freshman year were especially crucial to helping Chayanun take that leap of faith.
“Before I decided to come here I knew we had three Thai girls here,” Chayanun recalled. “Actually, I thought I was not going to come to the States at all because I could not speak English at all.”
As Martens and Gentile challenged Chayanun to mature in her physical abilities on the course at Iowa State, she was also tasked with maturing as a young adult off it.
Being 13 time zones away from home meant that not only was Koy geographically distant from home, but the window for communicating with her family was small. Chayanun learned to work through the times when, had she been home, she could’ve gone to her mother for assistance.
Learning to work through the problems she faced every day helped Chayanun develop a resolve that carried over to the golf course and establish what she and Gentile consider to be her biggest improvement since arriving in Ames: her mentality.
“It’s been a lot of fun to watch her really mature not only as a person, but as a player and to see her come into her own and just become more and more comfortable both here at Iowa State and on the golf team and watch her game flourish,” Gentile said. “This year especially, the rounds that she’s played, when you watch her on the golf course she just looks so comfortable and seems in her element – like this is what she’s supposed to be doing.”
While the mental aspect of golf has been important to Chayanun’s development, the physical changes to her game have also been noticeable.
“The process of getting better, she did a great job of it,” Martens said. “When you look at her videos from her freshman year, the transformation is insane. She went from being this little girl to, really, you don’t want to play against her now.”
Koy feels like she is peaking at just the right time as her senior season approaches its climax, having placed in the top-10 in 4 of her last 5 tournaments. This, she anticipates, will help catapult her into the professional ranks after graduation in May. She could thank her coaches and teammates for hours, but perhaps above all else she would thank her family.
After all, it was her brother who incidentally introduced her to the game. To this day, it’s her mom that follows every tournament online and offers a little push in the right direction when Chayanun isn’t sure exactly where to go.
The journey was not always easy for Koy, but she has no doubt that it has always been worth it.
“I improved a lot and I’ve changed a lot,” Chayanun said. “When I was in Thailand, I couldn’t do anything by myself. I had to ask my mom, ‘Hey mom, can you do this for me?’… I couldn’t speak English, but I needed to find a way to communicate with someone because I needed help from them.
“It was really hard for me, but I have to be though. I have to be brave and not be shy and not scared of anything and that helped me to be stronger in my mentality and everything. It was really hard, but I’m glad I got through everything and now I’m fine.”
A big smile crept across Chayanun’s face.
“I’m almost [a] graduate.”