This Match Ends In A Thai

Nirapathpongporn Edges Fellow Countrywoman Aree Song In Thrilling Quarterfinal Match

 

By David Shefter, USGA

 

Gladwyne, Pa. – When Virada Nirapathpongporn used to show up at golf tournaments in her home country of Thailand she would often see a familiar twosome. Aree and Naree Song were only 10 years old at the time and Nirapathpongporn was a spry 14. But they were the cream of the crop in a country not necessarily known for its golfing prodigies.

 

Virada Nirapathpongporn (right) and her caddie, Andy Dawson, try to line up a putt during Friday's quarterfinal match against Aree Song. Nirapathpongporn, a senior-to-be at Duke University, posted a 1-up victory. (John Mummert/USGA)

In 1997, all three of them decided that a move to the United States was needed to improve their golf skills and compete against stronger competition. Aree and Naree were the first to go along with their older brother, Chan, and their parents, who sold their 90-room hotel in Bangkok. Nirapathpongporn followed suit, but she came by herself to the David Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where the Songs also went to school.

 

"Their family kind of took care of me,” said Nirapathpongporn, whose parents are physicians (dad is a surgeon and mom is a radiologist). “They were my host family. I would go over to their house and eat Thai food maybe every two weeks or so.”

 

But Nirapathpongporn only had to face Aree Song once in a match-play situation. That came a few years ago in Florida at the American Junior Golf Association’s Polo tournament, a match Nirapathpongporn won.

 

Since then, Nirapathpongporn has gone on to Duke University where she has become one of the best collegiate players. She captured the 2002 NCAA Women’s title and was that year’s Honda Award winner for golf. Meanwhile, Aree Song has been the low amateur at the past two U.S. Women’s Opens (she shared the spot with Angela Jerman in 2002), finishing an impressive fifth at Pumpkin Ridge last month. She is headed to the University of Florida in the fall – with her sister Naree – where she just might face Nirapathpongporn a few times in competition.

 

The fans who came out to Philadelphia Country Club for the U.S. Women’s Amateur on Friday, and those who watched on ESPN2 got a preview of what’s to come. When Nirapathpongporn and Song each won their third-round matches rather easily in the morning – Song over future Florida teammate Aimee Cho (4 and 3) and Nirapathpongporn over Sarah Huarte (5 and 4) – the two had an afternoon quarterfinal date at the first tee.

 

It figured to be a classic battle and it lived up to its billing. The two combined for 10 birdies – six by Nirapathpongporn and four by Song – and it wasn’t decided until Nirapathpongporn holed a 4-foot bogey putt at the 18th hole for a 1-up victory. It came moments after Song left her 10-foot uphill par putt on the lip.

 

Twice, the two combatants halved holes with birdies (third and sixth) and Nirapathpongporn holed out a bunker shot at the 14th hole to take the lead for good.

 

But this is why the 21-year-old from Bangkok came to the U.S. for six years ago.

 

"This is what makes me good, playing against a tough opponent,” said Nirapathpongporn, who had reached the quarterfinals at the Women’s Amateur the past two years only to be eliminated. “This is why I go to Duke, to play with the best.”

 

Two months ago, Nirapathpongporn nearly had her name engraved on a USGA trophy, losing a thrilling 36-hole final to 13-year-old Michelle Wie at the Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship in Palm Coast, Fla. She shot the equivalent of 6 under par, compared to Wie’s 7-under showing.

 

That match got her battle-tested for this championship.

 

"I was thinking I have done this,” said Nirapathpongporn, who qualified for the Women’s Open but failed to make the cut. “I don’t know if that is an edge, but that makes me feel confident in myself. But I know I am very focused.”

 

At lunch, Nirapathpongporn and her caddie, Andy Dawson, were discussing the pending quarterfinal match when people stopped by to wish her luck. They kept telling her, “Tough match. It’s going to be a good match.”

 

Ever the veteran, Nirapathpongporn told Dawson that she didn’t have to try to play Song’s game to win. The two stuck with their strategy, even though Song frequently outdrove her. Dawson, who resides in Florida, has known Nirapathpongporn since she arrived in the U.S., but he didn’t caddie for her until this year’s WAPL. The partnership worked so well that she asked him to come to Portland, Ore., for the Women’s Open and to Philadelphia C.C. for the Women’s Amateur.

 

"My caddie has been a great help,” said Nirapathpongporn. “It helps a lot psychologically. It’s nice to have someone reassure my decision. It takes a lot out of you when you have to make the decision by yourself all the time.”

 

Song was obviously disappointed with the outcome, but not with her performance. She said she got too much of an adrenaline rush on her approach shot to the 18th hole. Song had 135 yards to the flag and gripped down on an 8-iron. The ball hit the back of the green and rolled into first cut of rough. Her chip shot then rolled 10 feet by the hole.

 

"I never hit my 8-iron more than 135 yards when I grip down,” said Song. “I wanted to have an uphill (birdie) putt. It just got away from me.”

 

Now Song can look forward to her freshman year of college with her sister.

 

"The biggest adjustment will just be being away from home,” she said. “It will be little things like during your own laundry and feeding your own stomach.”

 

Calling It A Career

Becky Lucidi ’s run as an amateur came to a halt late Friday with a 2-up loss to 16-year-old Jane Park. The 22-year-old University of Southern California graduate will start playing for pay in two weeks when she enters LPGA Qualifying School in Florida. Despite the loss, Lucidi, the defending champion, was happy with her performance. She rallied from a 2-hole deficit to square the match at the 16th hole, only to lose the final two holes.

 

"Every aspect of her game is conditioned,” Lucidi said of Park. “I was blown away by how well she played.”

 

When asked to sum up the last year, Lucidi responded: “It was phenomenal. I’ve got two national titles (she helped USC win the NCAA team title this past May) and I got to play in the (Women’s) Open (with Juli Inkster and Karrie Webb ). And my oldest brother, Mike, got engaged last night. That puts things in perspective, I guess.”

 

Red, White and Park

With USA Curtis Cup selections not too far off, members of the USGA Women’s Committee have been looking hard at the American players this week. Since Jane Park has a Korean surname, the first question asked of her in the interview room was if she was an American citizen.

 

"Heck yeah,” said Park with authority. “Do I have a chance?” When informed that she just might with her performances this summer, she giggled with joy.

 

Park finished in a tie for 30 th at the Women’s Open, one of seven amateurs out of 20 to make the cut. She reached the third round at the Girls’ Junior, losing to the eventual winner, Sukjin-Lee Wuesthoff, and she captured the Betsy Rawls McDonald ’s Girls’ Championship last week in Wilmington, Del., where she edged out her semifinal opponent on Saturday, Paula Creamer.

 

When asked if she would feel comfortable playing a fellow junior in the semis, Park replied: “Not at all. It doesn’t matter how old they are. I don’t care if they are 50 or 10. They can still beat me. Paula is going to be tough. She is not an easy opponent. Nobody has the advantage. I don’t know what’s going to happen. We will just have to wait.”

 

Park said her father, Byoung Park, fixed a putting flaw after the Women’s Open, moving the ball back in her stance a little bit. “I have a tendency to open the putter blade after I hit the ball,” she said. “If I put (the ball) a little more back I square it through impact. That helped me.”

 

Polished Player

Not only is Paula Creamer an accomplished golfer, but she also likes to look good on the course as well. “I get my nails done a lot,” said the 17-year-old from Pleasanton, Calif. She and her mom did that the final day of stroke-play qualifying on Wednesday.

 

Creamer, a semifinalist at the Girls’ Junior two weeks ago, also must play with pink tees (she has a pink golf bag) and has to mark her ball with a 1965 quarter. It’s a keepsake that her father, Paul, has been accused of misplacing.

 

"Fortunately we found it,” said Paul Creamer, who is a commercial airlines pilot. “I said put it back in the back, so it will still be there.”

 

As for the pink tees, Creamer said she finds enough at courses she plays at.

 

"We have a big old bag,” she said. “Some courses have pink tees. I don’t know how they have them. I just kind of take them all.”

 

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

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