Nirapathpongporn Ready for Futures Tour
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.
Molinari retirement plan: coffee, books and Twitter
After breaking through for his first career major, Francesco Molinari now has a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, a 10-year exemption in Europe and has solidified his standing as one of the best players in the world.
But not too long ago, the 35-year-old Italian was apparently thinking about life after golf.
Shortly after Molinari rolled in a final birdie putt to close out a two-shot victory at The Open, fellow Tour player Wesley Bryan tweeted a picture of a note that he wrote after the two played together during the third round of the WGC-HSBC Champions in China in October. In it, Bryan shared Molinari's plans to retire as early as 2020 to hang out at cafes and "become a Twitter troll":
Molinari is active on the social media platform, with more than 5,600 tweets sent out to nearly 150,000 followers since joining in 2010. But after lifting the claret jug at Carnoustie, it appears one of the few downsides of Molinari's victory is that the golf world won't get to see the veteran turn into a caffeinated, well-read troll anytime soon.
Molinari had previously avoided Carnoustie on purpose
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Sometimes a course just fits a player’s eye. They can’t really describe why, but more often than not it leads to solid finishes.
Francesco Molinari’s relationship with Carnoustie isn’t like that.
The Italian played his first major at Carnoustie, widely considered the toughest of all The Open venues, in 2007, and his first impression hasn’t really changed.
“There was nothing comforting about it,” he said on Sunday following a final-round 69 that lifted him to a two-stroke victory.
In fact, following that first exposure to the Angus coast brute, Molinari has tried to avoid Carnoustie, largely skipping the Dunhill Links Championship, one of the European Tour’s marquee events, throughout his career.
“To be completely honest, it's one of the reasons why I didn't play the Dunhill Links in the last few years, because I got beaten up around here a few times in the past,” he said. “I didn't particularly enjoy that feeling. It's a really tough course. You can try and play smart golf, but some shots, you just have to hit it straight. There's no way around it. You can't really hide.”
Molinari’s relative dislike for the layout makes his performance this week even more impressive considering he played his last 37 holes bogey-free.
“To play the weekend bogey-free, it's unthinkable, to be honest. So very proud of today,” he said.
Rose: T-2 finish renewed my love of The Open
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Justin Rose made the cut on the number at The Open and was out for an early Saturday morning stroll at Carnoustie when, all of a sudden, he started putting together one great shot after another.
There was no pressure. No one had expected anything from someone so far off the lead. Yet Rose shot 30 on the final nine holes to turn in 7-under 64, the lowest round of the championship. By day’s end he was five shots behind a trio of leaders that included Jordan Spieth.
Rose followed the 64 with a Sunday 69 to tie for second place, two shots behind winner Francesco Molinari. His 133 total over the weekend was the lowest by a shot, and for a moment he thought he had a chance to hoist the claret jug, until Molinari put on a ball-striking clinic down the stretch with birdies on 14 and 18.
“I just think having made the cut number, it’s a great effort to be relevant on the leaderboard on Sunday,” said Rose, who collected his third-career runner-up in a major. He’s also finished 12th or better in all three majors this year.
In the final round, Rose was well off the pace until his second shot on the par-5 14th hole hit the pin. He had a tap-in eagle to move to 5 under. Birdie at the last moved him to 6 under and made him the clubhouse leader for a few moments.
“It just proves to me that I can play well in this tournament, that I can win The Open,” Rose said. “When I’m in the hunt, I enjoy it. I play my best golf. I don’t back away.
“That was a real positive for me, and it renewed the love of The Open for me.”
Woods does everything but win at The Open
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a proud man who spent the majority of his prime scoffing at silver linings and moral victories, Tiger Woods needed little cajoling to look at the bright side Sunday at Carnoustie.
Sure, after a round in which he took the solo lead at The Open with nine holes to go, the first words out of Woods’ mouth were that he was “a little ticked off at myself” for squandering an opportunity to capture his 15th major title, and his first in more than a decade. And that immediate reaction was justified: In the stiffest winds of the week, he played his last eight holes in 2 over, missed low on a 6-footer on the final green and wound up in a tie for sixth, three shots behind his playing partner, Francesco Molinari.
“Today was a day,” Woods said, “that I had a great opportunity.”
But here’s where we take a deep breath.
Tiger Woods led the freakin’ Open Championship with eight holes to play.
Imagine typing those words three months ago. Six months ago. Nine months ago. Twelve months ago.
The scenario was improbable.
At this time last year, Woods was only a few months removed from a Hail Mary fusion surgery; from a humiliating DUI arrest in which he was found slumped behind the wheel of his car, with five drugs in his system; from a month-long stay in a rehab clinic to manage his sleep medications.
Just last fall, he’d admitted that he didn’t know what the future held. Playing a major, let alone contending in one, seemed like a reasonable goal.
This year he’s showed signs of softening, of being kinder and gentler. He appeared more eager to engage with his peers. More appreciative of battling the game’s young stars inside the ropes. More likely to express his vulnerabilities. Now 42, he finally seemed at peace with accepting his role as an elder statesman.
One major, any major, would be the most meaningful title of his career, and he suggested this week that his best chance would come in an Open, where oldies-but-goodies Tom Watson (age 59) and Greg Norman (53) have nearly stolen the claret jug over the past decade.
But success at this Open, on the toughest links in the rota?
“Just need to play some cleaner golf, and who knows?” he shrugged.
Many analysts howled at Woods’ ultra-conservative strategy across the early rounds here at big, brawny and brutish Carnoustie. He led the field in driving accuracy but routinely left himself 200-plus yards for his approach shots, relying heavily on some vintage iron play. Even par through 36 holes, he stepped on the gas Saturday, during the most benign day for scoring, carding a 66 to get within striking distance of the leaders.
Donning his traditional blood-red shirt Sunday, Woods needed only six holes to erase his five-shot deficit. Hearing the roars, watching WOODS rise on the yellow leaderboards, it was as though we’d been transported to the mid-2000s, to a time when he’d play solidly, not spectacularly, and watch as his lesser opponents crumbled. On the same ancient links that Ben Hogan took his lone Open title, in 1953, four years after having his legs crushed in a head-on crash with a Greyhound bus, Woods seemed on the verge of scripting his own incredible comeback.
Because Jordan Spieth was tumbling down the board, the beginning of a birdie-less 76.
Rory McIlroy was bogeying two of his first five holes.
Xander Schauffele was hacking his way through fescue.
Once Woods hit one of the shots of the championship on 10 – hoisting a 151-yard pitching wedge out of a fairway bunker, over a steep lip, over a burn, to 20 feet – the outcome seemed preordained.
“For a while,” McIlroy conceded, “I thought Tiger was going to win.”
So did Woods. “It didn’t feel any different to be next to the lead and knowing what I needed to do,” he said. “I’ve done it so many different ways. It didn’t feel any different.”
But perhaps it’s no coincidence that once Woods took the lead for the first time, he frittered it away almost immediately. That’s what happened Saturday, when he shared the lead on the back nine and promptly made bogey. On Sunday, he drove into thick fescue on 11, then rocketed his second shot into the crowd, the ball ricocheting off a fan’s shoulder, and then another’s iPhone, and settling in more hay. He was too cute with his flop shot, leaving it short of the green, and then missed an 8-footer for bogey. He followed it up on 12 with another misadventure in the rough, leading to a momentum-killing bogey. He’d never again pull closer than two shots.
“It will be interesting to see going forward, because this was his first taste of major championship drama for quite a while,” McIlroy said. “Even though he’s won 14, you have to learn how to get back.”
Over the daunting closing stretch, Woods watched helplessly as Molinari, as reliable as the tide coming in off the North Sea, plodded his way to victory. With Woods’ hopes for a playoff already slim, Molinari feathered a wedge to 5 feet on the closing hole. Woods marched grim-faced to the bridge, never turning around to acknowledge his playing partner’s finishing blow. He waved his black cap and raised his mallet-style putter to a roaring crowd – knowledgeable fans who were appreciative not just of Woods making his first Open start since 2015, but actually coming close to winning the damn thing.
“Oh, it was a blast,” Woods would say afterward. “I need to try to keep it in perspective, because at the beginning of the year, if they’d have said you’re playing The Open Championship, I would have said I’d be very lucky to do that.”
Last weekend, Woods sat in a box at Wimbledon to watch Serena Williams contend for a 24th major title. Williams is one of the few athletes on the planet with whom Woods can relate – an aging, larger-than-life superstar who is fiercely competitive and adept at overcoming adversity. Woods is 15 months removed from a fourth back surgery on an already brittle body; Williams nearly secured the most prestigious championship in tennis less than a year after suffering serious complications during childbirth.
“She’ll probably call me and talk to me about it because you’ve got to put things in perspective,” Woods said. “I know that it’s going to sting for a little bit here, but given where I was to where I’m at now, I’m blessed.”
But Woods didn’t need to wait for that phone call to find some solace. Waiting for him afterward were his two kids, Sam, 11, and Charlie, 9, both of whom were either too young or not yet born when Tiger last won a major in 2008, when he was at the peak of his powers.
Choking up, Woods said, “I told them I tried, and I said, 'Hopefully you’re proud of your Pops for trying as hard as I did.' It’s pretty emotional, because they gave me some pretty significant hugs there and squeezed. I know that they know how much this championship means to me, and how much it feels good to be back playing again.
“To me, it’s just so special to have them aware, because I’ve won a lot of golf tournaments in my career, but they don’t remember any of them. The only thing they’ve seen is my struggles and the pain I was going through. Now they just want to go play soccer with me. It’s such a great feeling.”
His media obligations done, Woods climbed up the elevated walkway, on his way to the back entrance of the Carnoustie Golf Hotel & Spa. He was surrounded by his usual entourage, but also two young, cute members of his clan.
Sam adhered to the strict Sunday dress code, wearing a black tank top and red shorts. But Charlie’s attire may have been even more appropriate. On the day his dad nearly authored the greatest sports story ever, he chose a red Nike T-shirt with a bold message emblazoned on the front, in big, block letters:
LOVE THE HATERS.
After this riveting performance, after Tiger Woods nearly won The Open, are there really any left?