Newcomer Natipong Srithong claimed a thrilling one-shot victory at the US$1 million Resorts World Manila Masters on Sunday, 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-par 273 total at the Manila Southwoods Golf and Country Club.
The young Thai edged out luckless South African Jbe Kruger, who closed with a 71, while overnight leader Hung Chien-yao of Chinese Taipei, who sank a magical hole-in-one, endured a topsy turvy 73 to share third place with countryman Lee Chieh-po, who closed with a 70.
India’s Rahil Gangjee, American Chan Kim, Thailand’s Prom Meesawat and Carlos Pigem of Spain shared fifth place, three behind the winner in what is the richest golf event in the Philippines.
Natipong, a final year law undergraduate and playing on a sponsor’s invitation this week, earned a cool US$180,000 top prize for his remarkable victory at the Resorts World Manila Master. The talented Thai 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 anymore,” smiled Natipong, who coach Somkiat Sungwanphet caddying 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 out there.
“Seeing Danthai winning last week was an inspiration. He was my roommate the past two weeks and 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 at the end.
Throughout the front nine, power-packed Kruger seemed in control, holding a three-shot advantage before his game unraveled. 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 hole 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 Kruger.
“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 endured a horrific start, dropping 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 was extremely happy. 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.”
Resorts World Manila Masters partners include Manila Southwoods Golf and Country Club and supported by Marriott, Scientific Games, Aristocrat, IGT Asia Pte Ldt, Fuji Xerox, Konami, Levelwear, Mitsubishi Motors, RGD LTD, Net Pacific, Inc, Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company, Avis and Glenmorangie.
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Scores after round 4 of the Resorts World Manila Masters being played at the par 72, 7,317 Yards Manila Southwoods GcC course (am – denotes amateur):
273 – Natipong SRITHONG (THA) 71-69-66-67.
274 – Jbe KRUGER (RSA) 69-65-69-71.
275 – LEE Chieh-po (TPE) 68-66-71-70, HUNG Chien-yao (TPE) 67-67-68-73.
276 – Rahil GANGJEE (IND) 72-66-70-68, Chan KIM (USA) 69-71-68-68, Prom MEESAWAT (THA) 72-68-67-69, Carlos PIGEM (ESP) 68-71-67-70.
277 – Paul PETERSON (USA) 70-67-74-66, Lionel WEBER (FRA) 72-67-70-68, Sam BRAZEL (AUS) 68-72-67-70.
278 – Jeunghun WANG (KOR) 69-69-69-71, Sukree OTHMAN (MAS) 71-68-68-71.
279 – Tirawat KAEWSIRIBANDIT (THA) 69-67-73-70, Panuphol PITTAYARAT (THA) 73-66-70-70, Adam GROOM (AUS) 69-67-71-72, S.S.P. CHAWRASIA (IND) 70-70-67-72.