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Thai American returns to her family’s roots at World University Games


Three weeks before most of her U.S. teammates arrived for the World University Games, Jennifer Tangtiphaiboontana had a homecoming. They’re becoming increasingly poignant every time she visits Thailand.


The 22-year-old golfer was born in California of Thai parents, both of whom were killed nearly six years ago in a car crash which she survived.


With only an older brother and an aunt remaining as relatives in the United States, the rest of her extended family is in Thailand. So when the Stanford graduate had a chance to represent her country in the homeland of her parents, she thought it would be a special experience.


“I guess because I’m now in direct contact with my relatives and not through my parents anymore, I’m definitely much closer to my aunts and uncles here than ever before,” Tangtiphaiboontana said after her first round of the University Games tournament.


“I’ve got such a huge family here. They all love having me back.”


And she loves being back, despite having a tough time at the Watermill Golf Club 90 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Bangkok and shooting an opening-round 83.


“The rough here is terrible, you get into it and you have difficulty making par,” she said.


Tangtiphaiboontana, who improved with a second-round 1-under 71 Wednesday, speaks fluent Thai. For the first two rounds of the tournament, she was grouped with a Canadian, a Russian and Thai player Sawitree Songtri.


“It was a comfort for her (Sawitree),” Tangtiphaiboontana said. “She told me on the first tee she can’t speak English very well, and that she was hoping I would translate for her.”


When Tangtiphaiboontana’s approach shot flew the green on the 14th and nearly ended up in the water, she and Sawitree, her marker, discussed in Thai whether the ball had crossed the hazard line.


It surprised many local volunteers when the young woman carrying the golf bag emblazoned with “USA” replied in Thai when asked for her score on the previous hole.


“They were more shocked than thrilled,” Tangtiphaiboontana said of the volunteers’ reaction. “It (speaking Thai) has definitely come in handy.”


She said her parents “forced” her to speak Thai as a young girl growing up near Riverside, California.


“One of the tactics they used is they would refuse to acknowledge us if we did not speak or respond in Thai,” she says. “So it was a good way to enforce the use of the language.


“I can’t read or write (in Thai) so that’s an unfortunate thing.”


Tangtiphaiboontana and a high school girlfriend were sitting in the back seat of her parents’ SUV on the way back from a regional tournament in 2001 when the car, with her parents in the front seats, ran off the road.


“The car lost control and rolled over a few times,” Tangtiphaiboontana said.


Both her parents were killed.


“I don’t know how I survived,” she says. “We think the metal in the back of the car was strong enough to box us in, and we virtually walked away from it. I had a small laceration on my face, my girlfriend a dislocated shoulder.”


That left her with just two relatives in the U.S. her mother’s aunt in Anaheim, California, and her brother Tommy, 25, a former golfer at Yale who now works as a tournament director for a national junior golf organization.


Tangtiphaiboontana plans to become a health care financial consultant.


“I thought about turning pro, but I don’t want to practice as much as I should,” she says. “And also the lifestyle that a pro leads … all the travel, is not attractive to me.”


She’ll likely continue an amateur career in golf, a decision that sits well with Diane Thomason, the U.S. coach with the team in Thailand.


“I hope she’ll continue to play and I’m already trying to get her to come to the world (amateur) championships in South Africa next year,” Thomason, of Iowa City, Iowa, said. “She is a very good ball-striker and her short game is excellent.


“It was really thrilling to get her to come. Because of her background, it makes it very interesting for her and for people here in Thailand.”


Tangtiphaiboontana estimates she’s been to Thailand “seven or eight” times, and this trip was the second since her parents died.


“This was special,” she said. “Just a short little vacation before I go back to work.”

– Associated Press

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