It is March 10, two days after the conclusion of the Qatar Masters, the last tournament played on the European Tour before the coronavirus changed the world forever. Brian Nilsson has arrived back in Bangkok, Thailand, his home for the past 17 years. The Australian, universally known as “Aussie Bri” on the Old World circuit, where he has spent the past decade on former Ryder Cup player Nicolas Colsaerts’ bag, didn’t hang about in the nation’s capital though.
Realising the heightened dangers of staying in such a densely populated area, Nilsson and his wife, Fohn (“Fohnzie” to her friends), headed south to the Hilltop Ao Nang resort in the Krabi Province, the “gateway to the islands”, not far from Phuket.
Little did they know that trip would be just the start of a so-far two-month-long odyssey that has seen the pair involve themselves in a life-saving mission, what has become known as “Operation Happy Tummy”.
With the tourist industry all but decimated, the local villagers were left penniless and hungry, their sole means of supporting themselves suddenly gone. Very quickly, the situation reached dire proportions; people were starving.
“We could see that the people were in trouble,” Nilsson says. “The tourist season had been quiet anyway. But this was disastrous. With no one coming in, there was no work. None. So we came up with an idea. Our friend, Pete Tanawatana, who owns the resort, has continued to employ 15 members of his kitchen staff. They began producing food for the locals. Alex Wuttijirakul, who owns a local bar, has also been a great help.”
Within the first week, 300 meals were being given away. That expanded when the poorest communities and villages were included. So 300 meals a week soon became 300 per day. But that was providing only one meal per person. Today, “Happy Tummy” is looking after about 400 people and preparing 5,500 meals per week. That works out to about 15 per person, or about two meals a day.
“Three days a week we cook their meals,” Nilsson says. “On the other days we hand out dry packs with 500 grams of rice, four eggs, some tinned fish and milk for the kids. So the locals are still doing some cooking for themselves. We don’t have to see them every day.”
All of which has required money, of course. The initial aim was to raise £20,000 ($NZ40,000) – enough to provide food for four months – and that target has almost been reached through a variety of means. Donations from Nilsson’s fellow caddies have come in, as well as from European Tour players. And Thailand’s leading golfers have stepped up, as well as the nation’s leading badminton, tennis, swimming and tae-kwon-do stars.
“My wife works for a company called ‘All-Thailand Golf Tours’,” Nilsson says. “She got in touch with many of the leading Thai golfers like Boonchu Ruangkit, Prom Meesawat, Danthai Boonma and Kosuke Hamamato. They started a ‘chip-off challenge’ on the internet. They chipped five balls each into a bucket maybe 10 yards away. If you failed to get at least three, you had to donate to ‘Happy Tummy’. That was successful. Then the top badminton players started something similar. And the tennis players and the swimmers and the tae-kwon-do guys. All of that raised quite a bit of money.”
Further complicating the need for cash is the fact that many of the people living in the Ao Nang area hail from other parts of Thailand. To claim the government hand out they would have to travel back to their home province, which is impossible with the country in lockdown.
“That actually became a moot point,” says Nilsson, failing to hide his disdain, “when the government announced they don’t actually have the money.”
Anyway, there is more to this tale than mere fundraising. The accumulation of cash was only the beginning. Realising that food hand-outs are but a short-term solution to the problems faced by the locals, Nilsson and his gang have introduced them to basic farming. It was an obvious conclusion: if you can’t buy food, you’d better grow it.
“In the past two weeks we have been planting bean sprouts, water spinach (known here as ‘morning glory’) and kale,” Nilsson reports. “The great thing is that the beans can be grown in three or four days. You don’t even have to plant them. We’ve been using old egg containers. Throw in the seeds, add water and boom. It is so hot and humid here, things grow quickly.
“Step two has been the digging of some large holes,” he continues. “Lined with plastic sheeting, they are perfect for farming catfish. That’s not hard to do. We’ve been learning how from YouTube actually. So soon we are going to be providing our own vegetables and fish. We’ll keep going with the rice packs. And we have a deal with one of the big milk companies in Thailand. We’re getting baby formula too for the kids. There are 14 or 15 kids under two (years old) in the villages.”
Geographic expansion of the scheme is also underway. Hearing of a nearby fishing community that had basically been cut-off, Nilsson has been to investigate, courtesy of the Thai police allowing him a special dispensation to get through the many road checkpoints.
“There are 60 people in the village,” Nilsson says. “They have been eating fish for weeks. And nothing else. So now we have set up a barter system. We send them chickens and eggs and rice in return for fish. That gives everyone a more balanced diet. We’ve also been trying to spread the word and tell others what we are doing. The hope is that other provinces will start similar projects. People are starving everywhere in Thailand.”
Two-months after it began, the journey from Qatar via Bangkok is a long way from over. But “Aussie Bri”, with a lot of help from his friends, is getting there. None of which comes as a surprise to his boss.
“Brian’s greatest quality is his loyalty to friends and those close to him,” says Colsaerts, who notes that he and Nilsson must rank in the top three on tour for the length of their working relationship. “I can’t imagine anyone thinks he is anything other than one of the good guys. You can’t last on tour this long without being passionate about everything you do. He and Fohnzie are wonderful people and a great match. You can see that in what they are doing now.
“I’ve seen the back streets in Thailand through Fohnzie. We’ve done things in the past for schools there. One was struggling to find teachers but we were able to help. And Brian has been involved every step of the way.”