Duke Mag-Sports-Jul/Aug 2002

August 1, 2002
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Just Say 'Oui' to Championships
Nirapathpongporn: a name to remember on the linksNirapathpongporn: a name to remember on the links
Nirapathpongporn: a name to remember on the linksNirapathpongporn: a name to remember on the links
photo:Jon Gardiner

t five feet four inches, Virada Nirapathpongporn, or "Oui," is the biggest thing to happen to Duke women's golf since last year, which says a lot about this team's tendency to dominate. If college golf's individual title were simply passed on from champ to champ, there needn't have been any ceremony. Candy Hanneman, Duke's lone senior, could have easily leaned over on the flight back to Durham and handed it to her teammate with a "here you go, Oui," because it's been two years since anyone who's not a Blue Devil can claim the honor.

Hanneman leaves Duke as one of the program's all-time greats, leading the team to thirty-three victories and two national titles while earning, among many other distinctions, the NCAA Individual Title honors during the NCAA championships one year ago. Her professional career began in June on the FUTURES Tour, a fitting name for the debut of a golfer with so much promise. As it was, Coach Dan Brooks and team all left the Washington National Golf Course with a trophy, the trophy, just as they did four years ago, for being the best collegiate women's golf team in the nation.

Oui has long black hair and tanned skin. She shakes hands firmly, but not too firmly. And if her appearance doesn't scream athlete, it's because her demeanor isn't the type to scream; it is everything professional--controlled and reserved and palpably confident. As Coach Brooks has described her, "you can never tell if she's had a real tough day," because she shows no emotion. "I try to stay calm. I try not to think of too many things, just my next shot, not so much where I'm going to hit it as how," she says. "The thing about golf-- you have to know that you can't control everything. Once the face of the club makes contact with the ball, that's it, there's nothing left for you to do."

Besides the evident equanimity, Oui is Thai, and though nothing's been proven, the Thai half of Tiger Woods isn't hurting him. She was born in Bangkok, where she won the first national tournament she ever competed in at age ten. With parents and an older brother who played regularly, Oui was different. "I liked swimming, not golf. They would go to play, and I really didn't care to go with them. But, one day my brother came back with a trophy from a tournament he took third in, this big trophy. I said to myself, 'Ooh, I like that, that looks good, I think I'd like one of those.'" As she says this, she grins and her eyes narrow, and you get a sense, that that's all it takes, that one time, perhaps, Oui heard about this NCAA individual championship trophy or maybe saw the one her teammate Hanneman took home the year before, and said to herself, "Hmmm, yeah, I think I'd like one of those, too."

Two years ago, Thailand celebrated its widely revered monarch's fiftieth anniversary on the throne. To commemorate the occasion, the Thai government issued a new coin featuring the image of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. People all over the country got one or two and put them in their pockets and never bought anything with them, not even when they were a baht short at the vending machine. Oui still has hers. She isn't superstitious, she assures, but whenever she marks the spot on the green where her last shot landed, she replaces the ball with the baht and the king is "always heads up, always."

At age thirteen, she left Thailand for boarding school in Australia. "While I was there," she says, "I decided I wanted to get serious about golf, so I left for the States." Oui attended the David Ledbetter Golf Academy in Orlando, where everyone's serious about golf, and was named the academy's Player of the Year in 1998. She took the individual state title in high school and, in two years at Duke, she's already holding school records for the lowest score on 18, 36, 54, and 72 holes. She's been ACC Freshman of the Year, first-team All-ACC, NGCA first-team All-American, and now the individual national champion on the title winning team, having tied the NCAA's all-time championships scoring record. Oui isn't even considering leaving for the tour yet, she says. "It didn't even enter my mind during the tournament, and I think that helped me a lot, helped me focus."

Oui doesn't have to go anywhere to be professional. She just is. A rising junior, she's going to spend another two years at Duke, she says, with the best coach and the best team around. And she's going to see if she can't get another one of these trophies that look so good.

--Patrick Adams