Nirapathpongporn Wins Futures Tour Event

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Futures TourMCALLEN, Texas -- Virada Nirapathpongporn, the woman with the longest name in professional golf, makes no apologies for taking the long route to the winner's circle. She joined the Futures Golf Tour last May and was winless in 2004.
 
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.'