A Talent For The Game

Virada Nirapathpongporn Has Complete Package


By David Shefter


Gladwyne, Pa. – Spend a few minutes with Virada Nirapathpongporn and you’ll quickly get the impression that if she had never picked up a golf club, the native of Thailand would be successful in some other endeavor.


She learned how to play the guitar from a book. She can sing and sometimes entertains her coaches and teammates with a few ballads. She’s a 3.6 student at one of the country’s most demanding universities.


Her parents are both doctors; dad is a surgeon and her mom is a

Virada Nirapathpongporn not only excels on the golf course, but she is also a two-time Academic All-American at Duke University.

radiologist. Her older brother is completing an engineering and business degree at the University of Melbourne in Australia and might come to the U.S. for more schooling.


And Nirapathpongporn, who came to the U.S. six years ago for golf and school, has been an Academic All-American the past two years at Duke University, where she also happens to be one of the top women’s golfers on one of the nation’s top teams.


"She is without a doubt one of the most quality persons you will ever meet,” said defending U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Becky Lucidi . “She has a strong mind and is extremely intelligent.”


Oh and did we mention she’s pretty good with a golf club in hand. Her resumé speaks for itself. She has advanced to the quarterfinals in each of her two U.S. Women’s Amateur appearances. She reached the final of the 2003 Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship, losing a thrilling 36-hole final to 13-year-old Michelle Wie, 1 up. Wie played the 36 holes in the equivalent of seven under par and Nirapathpongporn was six under par. And in 2002, she captured the NCAA Division I women’s championship, edging out heavy favorite Lorena Ochoa.


"She’s got a killer golf game,” added Lucidi. “She’s proven herself and she’s definitely going to be one to watch this week.”


The week Lucidi was referring to is the 103rd U.S. Women’s Amateur, which begins Monday at Philadelphia Country Club with stroke-play qualifying and ends with the 36-hole final on Aug. 10. Nirapathpongporn, whose name in Thai means a family blessed without disease, is considered one of the favorites. She is one of 20 competitors in the field who played in the Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge last month.


In fact, Nirapathpongporn, 21, has competed in two Women’s Opens (she missed the cut this year by a stroke) and three other LPGA events, including the 2003 Nabisco Championship, where she made the cut and tied for 21st. Then again, that was the same event where Wie generated huge headlines for shooting a 66 in the third round and earning a spot in the final pairing on Sunday alongside Annika Sorenstam and Patricia Meunier-Lebouc, so Nirapathpongporn’s effort was lost among the agate type.


The same thing happened at the WAPL, where Wie was the buzz, even though Nirapathpongporn was the medalist and top seed for match play. Both golfers played exceptionally well and the match wasn’t decided until Nirapathpongporn missed a 3-foot par putt at the 35th hole, giving Wie the lead for good.


"(That match) is still in the back of my mind,” Nirapathpongporn said. “I was thinking a couple of days after that, this putt here and one shot there (might have made a difference). But I think I did the best I could. We both played so great.


"I didn’t think of her as a 13-year-old. Her physique is not 13 and she doesn’t hit the ball like a 13-year-old.”


Nirapathpongporn faced a similar role going into the final round of the 2002 NCAAs, with Ochoa receiving all the hype that week. A year earlier, Nirapathpongporn had beaten Ochoa head-to-head in the 36-hole final of the Women’s Trans-National, so Nirapathpongporn felt confident playing against her.


"I knew we were both good players and I knew we were going to have a good match,” said Nirapathpongporn following her final practice round for the Women’s Amateur. “I’m sure people were thinking that it would be nice if ( Ochoa ) won because she was winning everything (that year). It’s a good thing I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just really playing my game. Fortunately, things went my way.”


Prior to coming to the U.S. in 1997, Nirapathpongporn, then a 13-year-old, spent a year in Australia going to school and learning English. Her brother was already there, and her parents knew that sending her to the U.S. without any knowledge of the language might be a bit overwhelming. “I understood it, but I couldn’t really speak it,” she said.


Two years later, she was on a plane to Florida and the David Leadbetter Academy . She found out about the school from a golf instructor in Thailand and since the family had no relatives in the U.S. where she could live, they felt this was the best place for Nirapathpongporn to complete her high-school education and land a college scholarship.


"I have to admit the first three months were very difficult,” Nirapathpongporn said of the transition. “What kept me here was that I knew I was here for a reason.


"(Being on my own) has really made me strong. It’s made me a confident, independent person. I am proud of what I’ve done. I see all the parents out here with their children right there and I’m like, ‘You know what, I’ve done this without my parents.’ ”


Nirapathpongporn not only excelled in the classroom, but her golf skills drew the attention of several top women’s golf programs. She had her on Duke University all along. She knew the academic reputation of the school and its women’s golf team, consistently ranked among the top 10.


And she has not disappointed. She won three tournaments as a freshman and added two more in her sophomore season, including the NCAA. That performance earned Nirapathpongporn the Honda Award for women’s golf and she had to miss the 2002 WAPL at Sunriver ( Ore. ) Resort in order to receive the trophy in Dallas, Texas .


This past season was not so successful, as she failed to win a tournament and she finished outside the top 10 at the NCAAs. This season the team figures to be strong again, with five of the six members of the squad qualifying for the Women’s Amateur.


“You would think at this time that you would be dragging with senioritis, but I am more excited than ever,” she said. “It’s the end of my kid’s life. When I was a freshman, I was a little scared because I didn’t know what to expect. Now going through it for three years, I know what it takes.”


Nirapathpongporn is one of those players who loves challenges. Whether it’s a difficult championship course like this week’s venue, Philadelphia C.C., or balancing a rigorous academic regiment with playing elite collegiate golf, Nirapathpongporn attacks each with a determined focus.


Those are ideals that were instilled in her by her parents. Before her dad went through a bone-marrow transplant last year, he would frequently fly to the U.S. in the summer to watch her compete. Her mom came to the WAPL this year.


"With both of my parents being doctors, they know the right mentality of kids; how they need to develop and how they need to grow,” she said. “They know kids need to be pushed as well.


"I know I have my parents and brother for my mental and moral support. They’ve been the guidance, but I have been the one executing.”

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




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