Rookie Natipong Shows His Mettle

Natipong Srithong secured his maiden Asian Tour title.
Natipong Srithong secured his maiden Asian Tour title.

Manila, Philippines: Natipong Srithong claimed a thrilling one-shot victory at the US$1 million Resorts World Manila Masters, becoming the second Thai rookie to win in successive weeks on the Asian Tour.

The 22-year-old Natipong, who turned professional in September after winning the individual and team gold medals at the Southeast Asian Games, overcame a four-shot deficit in the final round with a brilliant five-under-par 67 and 15-under 273 total at the Manila Southwoods Golf and Country Club.

Natipong edged out South African Jbe Kruger, who closed with a 71, while overnight leader Hung Chien-yao of Chinese Taipei, who sank a hole-in-one, endured a topsy-turvy 73 to share third place with countryman Lee Chieh-po, who closed with a 70.

Indian Rahil Gangjee, American Chan Kim, Thai Prom Meesawat and Carlos Pigem of Spain shared fifth place, three behind the winner.

Natipong, a final year law undergraduate and playing on a sponsor’s invitation this week, earned US$180,000 for his remarkable victory. He needed only four events as a professional to emulate close friend and fellow rookie Danthai Boonma, who won in Singapore last week.

“I was really motivated to play well because I have no status on the Asian Tour. I thought if I didn’t win, I will go to Qualifying School to get my card. I don’t have to any more,” smiled Natipong, whose coach Somkiat Sungwanphet caddied for him this week.

“I kept telling myself to stay calm. In the last few tournaments, I got excited about being in contention but I ended up not playing well. Today, I kept reminding myself to keep calm. I took it one shot at a time and played at my own pace. I tried not to get ahead of myself.

“Seeing Danthai winning last week was an inspiration. He was my room-mate the past two weeks. After he won, he said it will be my turn soon. I didn’t expect it to be so soon,” added Natipong, who made crucial birdies on 12, 15 and 17 to emerge triumphant.

Throughout the front nine, power-packed Kruger seemed in control, holding a three-shot advantage before his game unravelled. He thinned an approach shot from the fairway bunker on nine into the hazard for bogey and then dunked a wedge into water for a double-bogey on 10.

Trailing by two, his eagle chip from off the green on the par-five 18th for a play-off hit the cup and stayed out. “If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be,” lamented the 29-year-old.

“I had a difficult shot on nine and then I just hit a terrible shot on 10. Tried to fight back and hit it close a few times but the putts didn’t want to drop. On the last, I knew I had to make eagle to try to tie him (Natipong) and I nearly did. It shows it wasn’t meant to be. The chip ran over the lip,” he added.

Overnight leader Hung dropped four shots in six holes before fighting back with a magical ace on 13 with a finely struck two-iron tee shot that won him a VIP aircraft service package worth US$250,000 within the Philippines by Red Tail Aviation.

Birdies on 15 and 16 saw him tie Natipong with one to play but an errant drive into the bushes saw Hung’s hopes fade as he double-bogeyed the last. “I wasn’t stressed but I thought I was too uptight and just couldn’t play my best. I guess I may be pushing myself too much,” said the 23-year-old.

“I never expected the ball to go in on 13. I was just hoping to put it on the green and the ball disappeared. I knew I was in a share of the lead coming to the last. My tee shots have been great the whole week and I didn’t expect to hit it off the mark at the last.”

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