Nirapathpongporn Wins Futures Tour Event
But NP3, as she is often called for expediency, earned her first professional title today at the $70,000 Jalapeno Futures Golf Classic. And she did it by firing a four-under-par 68 in the final round at Palm View Golf Course, holding off Becky Lucidi of Poway, Calif., who finished second with a closing round of six-under 66. For 54 holes, Nirapathpongporn toured Palm View at 12-under-par 204, edging Lucidi at 205 (-11).
And while many have wondered why the player with the most decorated golf resume on the Futures Golf Tour has taken so long to win her first pro title, the former NCAA champion and U.S. Women's Amateur champion has a simple explanation.
'I don't like to skip a step in anything,' said the native of Bangkok, Thailand. 'As frustrated as I might have seemed last year, I wasn't quite ready to be there yet. Everybody was like, 'You've won on every level, so why haven't you won?' But maybe I wasn't ready. I think I needed all of that time to get ready for the next level.'
Nirapathpongporn came into the week with more than a golf tournament on her mind. Earlier this month, she went home to compete in the Thailand Ladies Open outside of Bangkok. The local favorite finished tied for seventh and enjoyed a week in which her likeness was splashed on posters throughout the city.
'She's kind of like a rock star over there,' said fellow Futures Tour member Libby Smith of Essex Junction, Vt., who also played in the Thailand Ladies Open. 'Her face was everywhere.'
But two days later, the golf pro found herself at home with her family, gripping the cruel reality of leukemia. Her father, Dr. Apichart Nirapathpongporn, a retired surgeon, succumbed to the disease on April 5. Stunned, the young pro spent the next week with her family about as far from golf as she could get.
Word slowly spread among her Futures Tour peers that the popular player's father was gone and many were surprised to see Nirapathpongporn arrive in Texas three weeks later. On Wednesday, as tough as she is, the wave of pain swept over her. Her voice quivered and she had tears in her eyes as she tried to wear the necessary game face and yet deal with an aching desire to be with her family so far away.
'We were trying to balance between letting her heal, letting her grieve and trying to play tournament golf,' said caddie Chris McCalmont, who celebrated the same birthday as his player last Thursday. 'On Wednesday, she cried for an hour, and then she said she was ready to play. For her to win today says a lot about how strong she is.'
Nirapathpongporn must have drawn deep from something bigger than sheer human will when she carded a first-round 66 on Friday to charge into second behind frontrunner Nicole Castrale of Palm Desert, Calif., who set the pace on the par-72, 6,381-yard course with an opening 65. By Saturday, NP3 had moved to the top of the leaderboard at eight-under 136 with a 70 in the second round.
'I don't know how I did it,' Nirapathpongporn said. 'I wasn't sure how I was going to be able to focus. On Friday, I felt like I could burst at any time. So whenever I had a thought about my dad, I wouldn't let myself think it. I felt it would do no one any good. I knew this was going to be a different kind of preparation this week, but I said, 'I'm going to play.''
And that, she did.
The heady four-time All-American from Duke University started today's final round with a two-shot lead and gradually put three shots between herself, Castrale and Lucidi. Nirapathpongporn was the center of a University of Southern California sandwich against the former Trojan college roommates, but she didn't get rattled even when Lucidi, herself a former U.S. Women's Amateur champion (2002), rammed in consecutive 12-foot birdies on holes six and seven.
A distant chaser, Sun Young Yoo of Seoul, Korea, fired a career-low final-round score of 65 to charge into third place at 207 (-9). The 18-year-old rookie hit 16 greens and rolled in 28 putts to move within three shots of Nirapathpongporn.
But while putts wouldnt fall for Castrale, the afternoon had largely turned into a nose-to-nose competition between Lucidi and Nirapathpongporn.
Lucidi never backed down, cranking her drive on the par-5, 488-yard 10th hole, cutting a 3-wood to 12 feet, then holing another 12-footer for an eagle-3 to catch the leader. But the Thai player calmly pitched to 1 feet on the 10th hole and carded a birdie to stay one shot ahead. With six holes to play, she birdied Nos. 13 and 16, stumbling only on the par-three 17th hole when she pushed her 4-iron tee shot pin-high right and didn't get up and down for par.
'I tried to swing too easy,' said Nirapathpongporn of the shot that trimmed her lead to only one stroke with one hole to play. 'I told myself, 'Don't worry. Do your thing and you'll be just fine.''
With the chance of a possible playoff looming, Lucidi again striped her drive on the final hole and knocked her pitching wedge approach to 18 feet. But the dimpled Californian, playing in her first Futures Tour event, left her putt short, which also left the door open for Nirapathpongporn to finish off that long-awaited first professional win.
'There were quite a few people following us and it was loud and awesome out there,' said Lucidi. 'Unfortunately, on that last hole, I forgot to hit my putt.'
Nirapathpongporn's walk to the 18th green today must have seemed like a dream to the Thai player, who arrived at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy as a 15-year old. She came to America to follow a dream and the timing coincided with a downturn in Thailand's economy that put a pinch even on the budgets of two parents who were physicians.
'It was difficult then and I put a lot of pressure on myself because I wanted to do well for my parents,' she recalled. 'But I worked my way through it. That's me. I struggled with English, with golf, with everything, but it was more rewarding at the end.'
And at the end of today's inaugural Jalapeno Futures Golf Classic, Nirapathpongporn stood over her putt. In the distance, she heard a marshal say, 'Stand please' to the excited gallery inching forward. She told herself she'd better get used to marshals, crowds and noise. And she told herself to stay with her shot, to 'finish the day.'
Perhaps more importantly, Nirapathpongporn finished the week -- a grueling test of emotions that started a day before her 23rd birthday and ended with a new tradition of the champion taking a chomp out of one of the jalapeno peppers stuffed inside her crystal trophy. NP3 gamely took the chomp. NP3 was the champ, moving from 27th to second on the season's money list and putting her into position to move on to another dream on the LPGA Tour.
'I'm coming along just the way I planned,' she said after the awards ceremony. 'Of course, life is not so linear. It comes with a lot of challenges, but I think it's a blessing in disguise.'
Confident Lincicome lurking after 54 holes at Founders
PHOENIX – Brittany Lincicome is farther back than she wanted to be going into Sunday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she’s in a good place.
She’s keeping the momentum of her season-opening Pure Silk Bahamas Classic victory going this year.
Her confidence is high.
“Last year, I won in the Bahamas, but then I didn't do anything after that,” Lincicome said. “I don't even know if I had a top 10 after my win in the Bahamas. Obviously, this year, I want to be more consistent.”
Lincicome followed up her victory in the Bahamas this year with a tie for seventh in her next start at the Honda LPGA Thailand. And now she’s right back on another leaderboard with the year’s first major championship just two weeks away. She is, by the way, a two-time winner at the ANA Inspiration.
Missy Pederson, Lincicome’s caddie, is helping her player keep that momentum going with more focus on honing in the scoring clubs.
“One of our major goals is being more consistent,” Pederson said. “She’s so talented, a once in a generation talent. I’m just trying to help out in how to best approach every golf course.”
Pederson has helped Lincicome identify the clubs they’re likely to attack most with on the particular course they are playing that week, to spend more time working with those clubs in practice. It’s building confidence.
“I know the more greens we hit, and the more chances we give ourselves, the more our chances are to be in contention,” Pederson said. “Britt is not big into stats or details, so I have to figure out how to best consolidate that information, to get us exactly where we need to be.”
Lincicome’s growing comfort with clubs she can attack with is helping her confidence through a round.
“I’ve most noticed consistency in her mental game, being able to handle some of the hiccups that happen over the course of a round,” Pederson said. “Whereas before, something might get under her skin, where she might say, `That’s what always happens,’ now, it’s, `All right, I know I’m good enough to get this back.’ I try to get her in positions to hit the clubs we are really hitting well right now.”
That’s leading to a lot more birdies, fewer bogeys and more appearances on leaderboards in the start to this year.
Returning Park grabs 54-hole Founders lead
PHOENIX – In the long shadows falling across Wildfire Golf Club late Saturday afternoon, Inbee Park conceded she was tempted to walk away from the game last year.
While healing a bad back, she was tempted to put her clubs away for good and look for a second chapter for her life.
But then . . .
“Looking at the girls playing on TV, you think you want to be out there” Park said. “Really, I couldn't make my mind up when I was taking that break, but as soon as I'm back here, I just feel like this is where I belong.”
In just her second start after seven months away from the LPGA, Park is playing like she never left.
She’s atop a leaderboard at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, looking like that’s exactly where she belongs.
With a 9-under-par 63 Saturday, Park seized the lead going into the final round.
At 14 under overall, she’s one shot ahead of Mariajo Uribe (67), two ahead of Ariya Jutanugarn (68) and three ahead of 54-year-old World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies (63) and Chella Choi (66).
Park’s back with a hot putter.
That’s not good news for the rest of the tour. Nobody can demoralize a field with a flat stick like Park. She’s one of the best putters the women’s game has ever seen, and on the front nine Saturday she looked as good as she ever has.
“The front nine was scary,” said her caddie, Brad Beecher, who was on Park’s bag for her long run at world No. 1, her run of three consecutive major championship victories in 2013 and her gold medal victory at the Olympics two years ago.
“The front nine was great . . . like 2013,” Park said.
Park started her round on fire, going birdie-birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie. She was 6 under through five holes. She holed a wedge from 98 yards at the third hole, making the turn having taken just 10 putts. Yeah, she said, she was thinking about shooting 59.
“But I'm still really happy with my round today,” she said.
Park isn’t getting ahead of herself, even with this lead. She said her game isn’t quite where she wants it with the ANA Inspiration, the year’s first major championship, just two weeks away, but a victory Sunday should go a long way toward getting her there.
Park is only 29. LPGA pros haven’t forgotten what it was like when she was dominating, when she won 14 times between 2013 and ’15.
They haven’t forgotten how she can come back from long layoffs with an uncanny ability to pick up right where she left off.
Park won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year in just her second start. She left the tour again in the summer with an aching back.
“I feel like Inbee could take off a whole year or two years and come back and win every week,” said Brittany Lincicome, who is four shots behind Park. “Her game is just so consistent. She doesn't do anything flashy, but her putting is flashy.
“She literally walks them in. It's incredible, like you know it's going in when she hits it. It's not the most orthodox looking stroke, but she can repeat it.”
Park may not play as full a schedule as she has in the past, Beecher said, but he believes she can thrive with limited starts.
“I think it helps her get that fight back, to get that hunger back,” Beecher said. “She knows she can play 15 events a year and still compete. There aren’t a lot of players who can do that.”
Park enjoyed her time away last year, and how it re-energized her.
“When I was taking the long break, I was just thinking, `I can do this life as well,’” Park said. “But I'm glad I came back out here. Obviously, days like today, that's the reason I'm playing golf.”
Joh on St. Patrick's ace: Go broke buying green beers
PHOENIX – Tiffany Joh was thrilled making a run into contention to win her first LPGA title Saturday at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup, but she comically cracked that her hole-in-one might have been ill-timed.
It came on St. Patrick’s Day.
“This is like the worst holiday to be making a hole-in-one on,” Joh said. “You'll go broke buying everyone green beers.”
Joh aced the fifth hole with a 5-iron from 166 yards on her way to an 8-under-par 64. It left her four shots behind the leader, Inbee Park (63).
One of the more colorful players on tour, Joh said she made the most of her hole-in-one celebration with playing partner Jane Park.
“First I ran and tackled Jane, then I high-fived like every single person walking to the green,” Joh said.
Joh may be the LPGA’s resident comedian, but she faced a serious challenge on tour last year. Fourteen months ago, she had surgery to remove a malignant melanoma. She won the LPGA’s Heather Farr Perseverance Award for the way she handled her comeback.
Davies, 54, still thinks she can win, dreams of HOF
PHOENIX – Laura Davies limped around Wildfire Golf Club Saturday with an ache radiating from her left Achilles up into her calf muscle at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup.
“Every step is just misery,” Davies said after. “It’s just getting older. Don’t get old.”
She’s 54, but she played the third round as if she were 32 again.
That’s how old she was when she was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year and won two major championships.
With every sweet swing Saturday, Davies peeled back the years, turning back the clock.
Rolling in a 6-foot birdie at the 17th, Davies moved into a tie for the lead with Inbee Park, a lead that wouldn’t last long with so many players still on the course when she finished. Still, with a 9-under-par 63, Davies moved into contention to try to become the oldest winner in LPGA history.
Davies has won 20 LPGA titles, 45 Ladies European Tour titles, but she hasn’t won an LPGA event in 17 years, since taking the Wegmans Rochester International.
Can she can surpass the mark Beth Daniel set winning at 46?
“I still think I can win,” Davies said. “This just backs that up for me. Other people, I don’t know, they’re always asking me now when I’m going to retire. I always say I’m still playing good golf, and now here’s the proof of it.”
Davies knows it will take a special day with the kind of final-round pressure building that she hasn’t experienced in awhile.
“The pressure will be a lot more tomorrow,” she said. “We'll see, won’t sleep that well tonight. The good news is that I’ll probably be four or five behind by the end of the day, so the pressure won’t be there as much.”
Davies acknowledged confidence is harder to garner, as disappointments and missed cuts pile up, but she’s holding on to her belief she can still win.
“I said to my caddie, `Jeez, I haven't been on top of the leaderboard for a long time,’” Davies said. “That's nice, obviously, but you’ve got to stay there. That's the biggest challenge.”
About that aching left leg, Davies was asked if it could prevent her from challenging on Sunday.
“I’ll crawl around if I have to,” she said.
Saturday’s 63 was Davies’ lowest round in an LPGA event since she shot 63 at the Wendy’s Championship a dozen years ago.
While Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in ’01. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.
Davies said she still dreams about qualifying.
“You never know,” she said.