I feel like Ive been waiting for this and preparing myself for this day for a long time, said Virada Nirapathpongporn, a four-time NCAA All-American at Duke and a native of Bangkok, Thailand.
Nirapathpongporn, better known by her friends as Oui (pronounced Ooo-Wee), or perhaps more appropriately for future leader boards as NP3, will become one of the Futures Tours more recognizable names this season. And it likely wont be as much for her 16-letter name as it will be for the kind of professional player she could become over the next 13 tournaments if past history is any indication of future promise.
At the only Futures Tour tournament she played last year as an amateur invitee, she tied for third at the season-ending York Newspaper Company Futures Classic, where she shot a final-round 68 and posted more birdies on the final nine than her former Duke teammate and the tournaments winner, Candy Hannemann. Hannemann won the champions prize check, but Nirapathpongporn won the side bet for dinner that night.
The rookies amateur record also includes some impressive highlights: winner of the 2004 Nancy Lopez Award as the worlds most outstanding female amateur; winner of the 2003 U.S. Womens Amateur Championship; runner-up at the 2003 U.S. Womens Amateur Public Links Championship (to Michelle Wie); Individual winner of the 2002 NCAA Womens Golf Championship and member of Dukes 2002 NCAA Womens national championship team.
At last weeks 2004 NCAA Womens Golf Championship, Nirapathpongporn finished tied for sixth individually and Duke placed third in the team competition. She retains the womens scoring record at Duke University for 18 holes (65) and 72 holes (279).
Going to college and playing college golf was never a question for me, said the 22-year-old player, who also was an NCAA Academic All-American. I wouldnt trade that experience for anything because I got the best of everything. I got a good education and I played on the No. 1-ranked college team all four years I was there. And honestly, I feel that I needed all of those four years to prepare myself and to mature.
Nirapathpongporns maturation process in golf got off to a good start when she spent three years at St. Stephens High School in Bradenton, Fla., where she also attended the David Leadbetter Academy with twins Aree and Naree Song, Hannemann and another former Futures Tour alumna Miriam Nagl.
Competition among the players was keen and all made their marks at the junior level. But more importantly, the Thai native built a very solid, fundamentally sound golf swing that translated into on-course performance. Her calling card became consistency, which was apparent at last weeks college nationals where she finished at 1-under-par 287 with rounds of 71-72-72-72.
Its not like we played bad, but we just didnt get anything going, said the Duke collegian.
Just as she has labored over the years to simplify her golf swing, Nirapathpongporn plans to enter her rookie season on the Futures Tour with simple goals. She wants to make the adjustment to the next competitive level. She hopes to quickly adjust to the traveling tour-golf lifestyle and to playing week after week in more consecutive tournaments than she has ever played. She wants to win a tournament. She hopes to play well enough in the remaining 13 events to earn one of the Tours five 2005 LPGA Tour cards.
Ill take it step by step because there are many little steps I have to make, she said. The Futures Tour is just a miniature LPGA Tour. I could try to get sponsors exemptions for LPGA events this summer, but I think that playing on the Futures Tour will prepare me better. Taking the next step to a higher level is just a matter of experience.
Nirapathpongporn paid careful attention last year to how her friend Hannemann and a former collegiate competitor, Katherine Hull of Pepperdine University, played in the 2003 Futures Tour season. Hannemann, a two-time 2003 winner, began her year dividing time between the LPGA and Futures Tours, but settled on focusing her efforts to earn one of the LPGA exemptions by playing solely with the Futures. Hull, who also won twice last season, played well, but fell short of earning one of the five LPGA Tour cards.
I did learn from what theyve done, said Nirapathpongporn. I know I can play on this level, but I also know it will be a good challenge.
Fortunately, this player likes challenges. Shes risen to the top of every level shes ever faced in both golf and academics. She is even featured in the current June issue of Golf Digest Magazine in a story that focuses on the new fitness level of todays collegiate players. Nirapathpongporn is photographed in the magazine pumping iron in the weight room. She may be small in size and gentle in spirit, but she has never shown that she is afraid to tackle anything.
Oh, I think everyone does have fear, but thats why you go out and work hard, she said. This season will be all about pacing myself and learning new things.
The player will travel with her mother, Supranee, for the next few months. Virada hopes that her game will bear out the Thai meaning of her first name: purity. As she increases the number of rounds she plays week after week, she hopes the Thai definition of her familys surname, Nirapathpongporn, continues to translate into its meaning: healthy family.
And whether she becomes known simply as Oui, her childhood nickname, or as NP3, the pseudonym that will fit leader boards at all levels, Nirapathpongporn is sure to at least be tested by all tongues who care about the future of womens golf. The Thai tongue twister is sure to become a fan favorite.
Playing here this season is an outcome thing because I want to get one of the top five exemptions, she said. But more than that, Im going to enjoy this whole journey.