Darton sophomore Joe Sakulpolphaisan recently became the No. 1 golfer in the nation, an honor that the native of Thailand has been working toward since he came to America less than two years ago with a set of untraditional clubs and aspirations to land in the PGA Tour — a destination his teammates and coaches think isn’t far away.
ALBANY — He sat there with a humble smile, modestly — almost timidly — talking about his golf game.
Darton sophomore Joe Sakulpolphaisan watched from a distance Thursday as five new golfers signed with the program.
And without a doubt, somewhere in the back of their minds, they had dreams of becoming the next Joe Sakulpolphaisan.
Sakulpolphaisan, a Thailand native who is currently the No. 1 NJCAA golfer in the nation, is a giant when he steps on a golf course.
But when asked how good he thinks his golf game is, he humbly shrugs off the question.
Ask his teammates the same thing about him, and they think he can beat the world.
“Joe could play with Rory McIlroy right now and give him a run for his money,” Darton sophomore Shad Tuten said, referring to the world’s new No. 1 golfer.
Tuten wasn’t kidding.
“If Joe is on his game, he really can’t be beat,” Tuten said. “He’s something special. He’s going to play in some big tournaments one day. He will always be remembered at Darton.”
Sakulpolphaisan will play his first tournament since rising to the top of the national rankings when the Cavs compete in Thursday’s Ron Marshall Spring Fling at Goosepond Colony Golf Course in Scottsboro, Ala.
It’s been a long, winding road to the top for Darton’s No. 1 golfer.
Sakulpolphaisan, who has a 70.3 stroke average and is already receiving offers from major Division I schools, grew up in Sriracha Chonburi, Thailand, which is about 50 miles east of Bangkok.
He picked up his first clubs when he was 9 years old, thanks to his big brother Pol’s interest in the game. A few years later, Joe was already beating his brother.
He got serious about golf in middle school and then started making a name for himself in high school. That’s when he began to seriously consider a move to America.
“There were a lot of good players over here, and I thought it would be good for me to get an education over here at the same time,” said Sakulpolphaisan, who is studying business. “I’ve enjoyed being in the U.S. so far. It has given me a lot of opportunities.”
Sakulpolphaisan admitted he was scared when he stepped into America all by himself, but it didn’t take long for a fellow freshman to reach out to the shy kid from Thailand, who spoke broken English at best.
“He was the first person I talked to, and I was the first person he talked to. I still remember it,” said Tuten, who went on to be Sakulpolphaisan’s roommate and a de facto English tutor. “The first day I came down here, I went and played with him. He shot a 69, and I shot a 73. I thought I played good, and he beat me by four. And I thought, ‘Man, this guy is a player.’ ”
Tuten, who is the team’s No. 2 golfer, has only seen Sakulpolphaisan’s game get better and better.
“I think the strength of his game is ball striking,” Tuten said. “He is always very consistent down the fairway. He always hits the fairway, hits the green and two-putts. That’s just Joe. That’s how he is. Every now and then he will make a putt, and that’s when he shoots his good numbers. He is very consistent.”
He isn’t long off the tee, but his short game is rivaled by few.
“If you put Joe on a course where it’s tight and it’s not really long, I would put him on (the PGA Tour) right now as far as his capabilities go,” Darton coach Bill Jones III said.
Sakulpolphaisan barely knew English when he stepped onto the Darton campus, but his golf game didn’t need translation.
He came over with a set of butter-knife irons, which are slim, unforgiving and virtually obsolete in the golfing world.
Somehow, Sakulpolphaisan made them work. He had a tiny circle in the middle of each club face, and Tuten remembers him striking the ball on the circle over and over again.
He eventually switched to some more-forgiving clubs, and his English began to improve, too.
Jones, who was the assistant coach when Sakulpolphaisan joined the team, said his swing was flawless but his mental approach was still a work in progress when he was a freshman.
“In golf you need to get over stuff really quickly,” Jones said. “You need to forget about something and get over it by the next shot or it’s going to affect you, and last year it affected him a lot. Whether it was a bad shot or not what he wanted, he would get upset and it would cost him some shots.”
Sakulpolphaisan lost his composure a few times as a freshman and during the fall of his sophomore season, but none stung more than the Titan Winter Invitational in Melbourne, Fla., early in 2011.
“I had a chance to win it, but I kept thinking, ‘I have to make this putt,’ but it just ruined me,” said Sakulpolphaisan, who finished one shot out of a playoff. “I felt like I missed my chance.”
Despite struggling with his mental game, he finished last season second at nationals and earned First-Team All-American honors.
But he still wanted more, and he knew his raw talent would only take him so far.
“This year I started thinking better and playing my game,” Sakulpolphaisan said. “What helps me the most right now is my game plan, my thinking. Last semester I would think ahead, but right now I am sticking in the moment and taking one shot at a time.”
He started his sophomore season as the No. 1 golfer for Darton, which is currently ranked sixth in the nation.
His new game plan had him taking one shot at a time, a method that would have given him the edge his freshman season in Melbourne, Fla.
He wasn’t about to make that mistake a gain.
In February of this year, Sakulpolphaisan conquered those demons and the Titan Winter Invitational when he finished with two birdies in the final six holes to win his second collegiate title by two shots.
Not long after that, Darton golfer Chase Jones broke the news to him that he had ascended to the top spot in the nation, becoming the first Darton player to do that since Brent Witcher in 2005.
“I didn’t believe him, so I went and checked it,” Sakulpolphaisan said about the No. 1 ranking. “When I saw it I felt really happy.”
Happy, but not prideful — a perfect example of what has helped him rise to the top and what has made his teammates love him.
Tuten remembers seeing that gentle nature during a qualifying round at Stonebridge Country Club when four Darton golfers shot a combined 17 under.
“I shot a 67 coming in and was pretty happy,” Tuten said. “Joe fist pumps on the last hole, and I was like, ‘Oh man he beat me.’ He shot a 64 that day. The thing is, when he shoots those good numbers he is humble about it. He doesn’t boast.”
Sakulpolphaisan has never failed to amaze his roommate, and that’s why Tuten has so much faith in him. That’s why Tuten thinks he can beat the No. 1 golfer in the world.
“I don’t know about that, but Joe is the closest to somebody we expect to play professional golf since Brent Witcher,” Jones said. “One day Joe could probably beat (McIlroy), I guarantee it. But is he there now? No, he’s still got a long way to go.”
But he’s on his way.
Sakulpolphaisan has already received an offer from Mississippi State and has been shown interest from Louisville, San Diego State, Arizona State, Auburn and Alabama.
He plans on continuing his golfing career and his education in America, but he still has a soft spot for his native Thailand.
His family hasn’t been able to visit him in America since he arrived here nearly two years ago, and he has made just one trip to visit them.
He made that 20-hour flight home a few months ago and joked about how worried he was that the airline would lose his luggage — or more appropriately his golf bag, which he would have taken as a carry-on if possible.
“I was just hoping they wouldn’t just disappear from me,” he said with a laugh.
The bag made the trip, and he was able to carry it out of the airport and into the land where he learned the game.
Give him some time, and those bag-carrying duties may be on someone else’s shoulders.
“I was talking to him and he asked if I was going to be his caddy. I said, ‘Yeah, man,’ ”
Tuten said. “He’ll be there one day. I know he will.”