The Final Piece In The Championship Puzzle

Women’s Amateur Title Should Finally Give Nirapathpongporn The Recognition She Deserves

 

By David Shefter, USGA

 

Gladwyne, Pa. – The Women’s Amateur trophy that Virada Nirapathpongporn captured on Sunday at Philadelphia Country Club – taking a famous line from the hit movie “ Jerry McGuire ” – definitely “completed her.”

 

It was the crowning achievement in a career that was devoid of that one major victory; that one title that would recognize her as one of the best amateurs in the women’s game. The 21-year-old native of Thailand had proven herself on the collegiate level, edging out heavy favorite Lorena Ochoa to win the 2002 NCAA Women’s Championship as well as helping her Duke squad take the ’02 team championship.

 

She had shown the physical and mental fortitude to qualify for two U.S. Women’s Opens, only to miss the cut in each appearance (2002 and ’03).

 

Her résumé also included two quarterfinal showings at the last two Women’s Amateurs, a Women’s Trans-National title in 2001 (beating Ochoa in the 36-hole final) and a round-of-eight finish at the 2001 Women’s Amateur Public Links at Kemper Lakes near Chicago, Ill.

 

But the biggest heartbreak occurred in June at Ocean Hammock Golf Club in Palm Coast, Fla. Nirapathpongporn was the stroke-play medalist at the Women’s Amateur Public Links and cruised the her first five matches before meeting 13-year-old Michelle Wie in the 36-hole final. Yet the adulation and hype went to Wie, who pulled out a dramative 1-up victory by playing the equivalent of 7-under-par golf to Nirapathpongporn’s 6-under showing.

 

That all was erased this past week at Philadelphia Country Club. Nirapathpongporn arrived at the classic William Flynn-designed course with a single purpose. You could see it in her demeanor; eyes focused hard on the task and renewed vigor to claim one of the most prestigious prizes in all of women’s amateur golf.

 

"I have been a very consistent player,” Nirapathpongporn said after defeating Jane Park, 2 and 1, for the title, “but I just haven’t done anything extraordinary like winning the Publinx at 13 like Michelle (Wie) or Aree (Song) was top-10 at Nabisco at 13 and top 5 just now (this year at the Women’s Open). But I have always been up there.”

 

Winning this championship places Nirapathpongporn in rarified air. Few players can boast of winning an NCAA women’s title and the Women’s Amateur championship. Grace Park, now a rising star on the LPGA Tour, was the last to accomplish the feat. She also became just the second Thai-born golfer to win a USGA title, joining Song, who took the Girls’ Junior in 1999.

 

"After winning NCAAs, I think that was the peak,” said Nirapathpongporn, who will be a senior at Duke University this fall. “I was really proud of that achievement and this was one thing that I hadn’t accomplished. Now I have and I am ready to move on.”

 

Nirapathpongporn plans to turn professional sometime after graduation next May. She might rethink those plans until after the Women’s Open, where she now has a two-year exemption provided she remains an amateur.

 

Nevertheless, the Women’s Amateur title should give Nirapathpongporn some overdue recognition. At the WAPL, she clearly was the sidebar to the main attraction. Reporters came up to the final basically to watch Wie, even though Nirapathpongporn’s golf accomplishments were far greater.

 

"I was really, really determined at the beginning of the week,” said Nirapathpongporn. “This has been a dream for a really long time.”

 

Thinking About Mom And Dad

Since 2001, Nirapathpongporn’s father, Apichart, has suffered from leukemia, which has limited his travel to the U.S. to see his daughter. He caddied for Virada at the 2001 Women’s Amateur, but did not attend last year’s championship at Sleepy Hollow Country Club. Apichart, himself a surgeon, has been undergoing bone-marrow transplants back in Bangkok. Her mother, Supranee, also a doctor (radiologist), did attend the WAPL in Florida.

 

Every night, Virada has called home (it’s an 11-hour time difference) to keep her parents abreast of the goings-on at the Women’s Amateur. The family also has followed the action via the internet.

 

"I don’t know if they stayed up all night, though,” said Nirapathpongporn. The championship match ended at 3:30 a.m. in Thailand.

 

"It’s around 4:20 a.m. right now,” added Virada of the current time in Bangkok at the time of her post-championship interview, “but I think I will call (my parents). I’m sure they won’t mind.

 

"Even if he was dying, he would still want to be here. But I told him to please stay home, stay healthy now so you can watch me 10 years from now. Don’t rush and maybe you might not even be there to see me succeed. I think he listened to me. I told him, ‘Dad, I got it. I know what I have to do and I will go and do it. So don’t you worry.’ ”

 

Nirapathpongporn added that she likely won’t take the Women’s Amateur trophy back home. “I think it will stay at Duke,” she said.

 

The next step is finding an engraver. After all, the process might take some time. Her last name has 16 letters.

 

Quite A Week

While Jane Park showed up at Philadelphia Country Club with her own stellar list of credentials, her performance just might take her to a whole other competitive level. For starters, she has earned an exemption into the 2004 Women’s Open. The USGA changed its exemptions for the Open this year, giving the champion and runner-up a spot in the field, provided they remain an amateur.

 

"I get an exemption?” Park asked incredulously. “Wow. That’s my favorite tournament.”

 

Her name also is likely to pop up on the short list for the 2004 USA Curtis Cup team that will face the Great Britain & Ireland squad at Formby next June.

 

Park still has a couple of junior tournaments left this summer before starting her high school girls’ golf season in the fall. She also will travel to Sweden next month to compete in the Junior Solheim Cup, an event Park played in last September in Minnesota.

 

"I am still a junior golfer,” the 16-year-old said. “In order to be a good amateur I have to be the No. 1 junior golfer. I have to reach one step at a time.”

 

When asked what she learned the most this week, Park replied: “I learned I can make a lot of birdies,” she said. “I learned that my game is improving slowly as time goes on. I know it’s not going backwards; it’s going to go forwards. I am just going to keep on improving.”

 

Park was bidding to become the fifth 16-year-old to win the Women’s Amateur. The other four were Beatrix Hoyt (1896), Laura Baugh (1971), Michiko Hattori (1985) and Vicki Goetze (1989).

 

Not Over Yet

While the championship officially ended for Tez Seiberlich, the general chairman for the Women’s Amateur, on Sunday, her focus on USGA events has not. Her brother, Chet Walsh, qualified for the 103rd U.S. Amateur on Monday. That championship begins Aug. 18 at Oakmont ( Pa. ) Country Club. Seiberlich is one of 15 children. Another brother, Brendan Walsh, is the head pro at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

 

And Philadelphia Country Club will be on the national stage again in 2005 when the U.S. Amateur comes to Merion Country Club. Philadelphia C.C. will be the second stroke-play qualifying course.

 

David Shefter is a USGA staff writer. He can be reached at dshefter@usga.org.

 

 

 

 

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