2002: College - Virada’s victorious return
By Lisa Antonucci
Life came full circle for Duke sophomore Virada Nirapathpongporn at this year’s NCAA Division I Women’s Championship.
The 20-year-old Duke Blue Devil, who took her first swings on a course in Seattle when she was 8 years old, captured college golf’s premier title May 24 at Washington National Golf Club. The Thailand native triumphed by five shots over a quartet of college golf’s finest, including No. 1-ranked Lorena Ochoa of Arizona.
Nirapathpongporn, now a two-time first-team National Golf Coaches Association All-American, finished 9 under par after rounds of 68-69-70-72. Her 279 total tied the NCAA’s all-time championship scoring record set by former Southern California player Jennifer Rosales in 1998.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘You’ve got to keep playing hard, because it might come down to a shot or two,’ ” said Nirapathpongporn, whose team won going away thanks to a late surge of birdies in the final round. “We worked hard all year, and I was happy to finish this off.”
Georgia junior Summer Sirmons, the closest competitor to Nirapathpongporn through 54 holes, Auburn junior Danielle Downey and Pepperdine’s Lindsey Wright tied Ochoa for second at 4-under 284.
While local headlines tagged Nirapathpongporn as a “surprise leader,” those who know the diminutive Blue Devil know she has the game to match her big last name.
Nirapathpongporn won three times her freshman season to earn NGCA Freshman of the Year honors. Last summer, she made it to the quarterfinals of the Women’s Western, U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and U.S. Women’s Amateur. Most notably, she won the Trans Amateur in July by defeating Ochoa, 1 up, in the championship match.
This season, she had seven top-10 finishes, including a victory at the Bryan National Collegiate. She led the team in scoring average (73.52), and at nationals she led the field in birdies with 16.
“Given the way she’s been playing and the fact that she studied this golf course the way she has the last few days, I’m not surprised at all,” said Duke coach Dan Brooks.
Nirapathpongporn admitted to a slight case of nerves before the tournament began, but after opening with a 4-under 68, she said she had “never felt better.” She attributed some of her calm to the presence of her father, Apichart, a general surgeon in Bangkok who had undergone a bone marrow transplant eight months earlier.
“It’s so awesome having him here,” she said. “He may be one of the reasons I am feeling so calm – having him close to me. He was the one to get me started playing golf. Without him, I wouldn’t be here.”
Though Nirapathpongporn’s victory may not have been a surprise, Ochoa’s lackluster performance was. After winning eight individual titles in nine starts this season, Ochoa was a heavy favorite for the national title. But she barely threatened the lead. Ochoa shot 71-69-71, moving from a tie for 10th to third going into the final round, but finished with a final-round 73, punctuated by two three-putt bogeys on holes 2 and 3 and a costly penalty at the par-5 17th, where she dumped her second shot in the lake trying to go for the green in two.
Her closing birdie on 18 was one of the day’s few bright spots, securing her team and herself a tie for second place.
“I think I was too anxious,” said Ochoa, who missed at least seven birdie putts within 15 feet during her final round. “I misread a couple of greens, and I think I was insecure over my putts. I kept making my stroke too fast. It was a horrible day for my putts. I don’t ever remember having a day like that before.”
For Sirmons, finishing second was disappointing but not devastating. She shot 69-68 and was tied with Nirapathpongporn midway through the tournament, and was still within striking distance, three shots back, after a third-round 73.
“I knew that to have a chance to win, I would have to take it low,” said Sirmons, who closed with 74. “It’s always hard to go out and shoot low on the last day, but I’m happy I didn’t totally blow up. I’m very happy about the way I finished.”
Nirapathpongporn is the second Duke player to win the national title in as many years, marking the third time in history that teammates have performed the feat back-to-back. Candy Hannemann won the 2001 title for the Blue Devils. Emilee Klein and Kristel Mourgue d’Algue won titles for Arizona State in 1994 and 1995, respectively, and Susan Slaughter and Annika Sorenstam won consecutive titles at Arizona in 1990 and 1991.