Sunday, 18 March 2007

Chapchai Nirat became the third Thai golfer to win on The European Tour when a composed and controlled final round at Yalong Bay Golf Club belied his 23 years and gave him his maiden victory in the TCL Classic.

Previously, countrymen Thongchai Jaidee and Thaworn Wiratchant had enjoyed that special Sunday feeling with silverware in their hands and Nirat ensured he joined them with a final round of 71 in Sanya on the Hainan Island resort for a 22 under par total of 266 and a three shot victory over Argentina’s Rafael Echenique.

Ever since his course record opening round of 61 Nirat had been the man to catch but nobody could come up with the goods to mount a serious challenge, the Thai golfer becoming the third wire to wire winner of the 2007 season, following José Manuel Lara (UBS Hong Kong Open) and Retief Goosen (Commercialbank Qatar Masters).

Nirat also became the fourth first time winner on The European Tour International Schedule in the past five weeks – and the ninth of the season in total from 16 events – pocketing €127,046 (£86,271) for his sterling efforts.

He also completed the five strong line-up for the inaugural Bursa Malaysia Swing Grand Final at The Celtic Manor Resort on May 28, joining Lara, Peter Hedblom (Maybank Malaysia Open), Mikko Ilonen (Enjoy Jakarta Astro Indonesia Open) and Liang Wen-chong (Clariden Leu Singapore Masters) in the special skills challenge at the venue for The 2010 Ryder Cup.

"There was a lot of pressure today but I talked with my caddie and the plan was to just keep playing at the same level as I had done over the first three days," said Nirat. "This is my first big win and I'd like to dedicate it to my parents.

"I was feeling serious on the back nine because Rafael was getting close so I didn't want to make a mistake, but at the finish I was very happy. To win a big tournament like this means a great deal to me and I will definitely play in Europe."

Starting the day five shots clear of the field Nirat knew, if he played solidly from the off, he would be a difficult man to overhaul and he did just that with eight straight pars to begin his final round.

He traded a birdie and a bogey at the ninth and tenth but quickly returned to the par trail from the 11th to the 14th before a superb birdie two at the testing 15th finally put paid to the hopes of the chasing pack that he might begin to crumble under the pressure of the home straight.

Despite playing its full length of 240 yards thanks to the removal of trees and shrubbery prior to the event, Nirat made light work of the tee shot at the 15th, finding the centre of the putting surface from where he curled in a superb 30 foot right to left birdie putt to leave the destination of the trophy in no doubt.

It left the 23 year old Thai – with the John Daly-like backswing and the nickname 'King Kong' due to his prodigious driving distances – to enjoy the walk down the final three holes and it is certain he did not even notice the rain which drifted down from the surrounding hills across the palm-fringed course close to the South China Sea.

Fellow Thai Prayad Marksaeng, Australian Simon Nash and James Heath of England all tried their best to nibble away at Nirat’s advantage but none could put together a significant run of birdies to trouble the leader, leaving Marksaeng third on 271 after his closing 67, while Nash and Heath shared fourth on 272 after respective closing 68 and 69.

Ever since he carded 64 in the opening round to lie second, Nirat’s most realistic challenger over the week was Echenique and so it proved in the final round but, like the trio above, the Argentine could not get close enough to put significant pressure and doubt into the eventual champion’s mind.

Three birdies in a flawless outward half of 33 gave the 26 year old European Tour rookie – who finished seventh on the 2006 Challenge Tour Rankings and who won the opening Challenge Tour event of the 2007 season, the 101° Campeonato Abierto in his native Argentina – a glimmer of hope.

But to have a chance of success, he needed to take advantage of the chances which presented themselves on the inward half which, despite his best attempts, he did not do.

At the 13th and 14th holes, Echenique had birdie opportunities from inside six feet but on both occasions the ball remained above ground and by the time he eventually carded a red figure – a pitch and putt birdie at the par five 16th – it was too late and he had to settle for second after a closing 68 gave him a 19 under par total of 269.

"I am very happy with my performance because I am just starting out on The European Tour so this is very good experience for me," he said. "I played great this week and today was my best day. I hit the ball really well today but I missed a lot of putts - but that's golf."

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