INTERNATIONAL INVITES

Published:

Prayad Marksaeng has a big group of fans this week.

His entire country.

Marksaeng is the third Thai-born golfer to play in the Masters, receiving one of the exemptions given to foreign players who wouldn't otherwise qualify. Liang Wen-Chong of China and India's Jeev Milka Singh also got exemptions, which are designed to help broaden golf's appeal around the world.

``I am representing my country this week, and it will energize golf,'' Prayad said. ``Everyone will be watching the Masters.''

Prayad, 42, got interested in golf as a way to pass the time on his way to school. He had to walk across the Royal Hua Hin Golf Club to get to school and, at 12, decided he could make the walk go quicker if he hit a golf ball with a club made out of a tree branch. He later shagged balls for Suthep Meesawat, one of the top pros in Thailand at the time.

When Prayad got older, the owner of the Royal Hua Hin club started a team and gave Prayad his first set of real clubs.

Prayad has won six times on the Asian Tour, and in 1999 became the first Thai to qualify for the British Open.

``It's great to be here, not just for myself, but for my friends and family,'' Prayad said. ``I'll try to do my best. This is a lifetime dream.''

Sukree Onsham was the first Thai-born golfer to play at Augusta National, appearing in 1970 and 1971. Thongchai Jaidee was here in 2006. Neither made the cut.

Of course, Thailand does have a claim to the world's best player. Tiger Woods' mother, Kultida, is from Thailand.

Prayad has played with Woods. The two were paired for the first two days of the 1997 Asian Honda Classic, which Woods won by 10 strokes.

``It was very hard for me to concentrate that day,'' Prayad said. ``There were so many people, but they weren't there to see me.''

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SPECIAL VISIT: Stephen Ames came up to Augusta National three weeks ago for a practice round, and he brought some company. Ames invited a teenager from his junior golf program in Trinidad, 17-year-old Ben Martin.

``He's still calling to say thank you,'' Ames said. ``He's a good kid, a good player, and I'm glad I did it. He got to play eight holes, including Amen Corner, which he probably wasn't supposed to do. It was lot of fun. This can open his eyes, let him see things he wouldn't normally see, and picture where he wants to be someday.''

Ames said Martin is good enough to get a college scholarship, perhaps somewhere in Florida.

The trip to Augusta was on Monday of the CA Championship at Doral, and Martin certainly had a full week. He returned to Miami with Ames, and when the tournament was carried over to Monday because of rain, he wound up caddying for Ames for the final four holes.

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DIAPER DANDY: Sean O'Hair made his Masters debut in 2006, and played Augusta National for the first time that Tuesday in a practice round with none other than Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara.

Talk about a nerve-racking experience.

``I needed a diaper, just in case,'' O'Hair said last month at Bay Hill. ``It was pretty overwhelming.''

When he arrived Monday and headed for his locker, he found his allotment of golf balls, gloves, hats - and thankfully, no diapers.

``I was expecting to see one in there,'' he said. ``If you do put one in there, just make sure it's clean.''

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OH NEAUX, TIGERS!: This wasn't the result David Toms wanted.

No, not his golf game. That's fine. His alma mater's basketball team, now that's a different story.

Toms stayed up late Sunday to watch LSU play Tennessee in the national semifinals. It was the fifth straight year the Lady Tigers had made it to the Final Four - and the fifth straight year they lost in the semifinals. This loss was particularly tough, with Tennessee winning 47-46 on Alexis Hornbuckle's putback with less than a second left.

``It was a good game,'' Toms said. ``Too bad we came out on the losing end again.''