Wiratchant keeps up the good work

RAKESH RAO

Worthy champion... Thaworn Wiratchant of Thailand with the winner's cup.-SANDEEP SAXENA

IN the past decade and a half, no single factor has helped the country's golf more than the making of Indian champions in the two dollar-events, the Indian Open and the Masters, in front of the home crowd.

When Ali Sher won the Open in 1991 and 1993, it was a time when other caddie-turned pros like Rohtas Singh and Basad Ali ruled Indian golf. Gaurav Ghei's historic win at the $500,000 Gadgil Western Masters in November 1995 showed the way to many amateurs and gave them good reason to contemplate turning pro. In the following years, Jyoti Randhawa and Arjun Atwal won both the Open and the Masters; right after Jeev Milkha Singh had proved himself on the Asian PGA Tour.

Before Harmeet Kahlon won the Masters, the Open triumphs of Feroz Ali and Vijay Kumar demonstrated that the Indian Tour was strong enough to produce performers capable of coming out stronger even in elite fields. Atwal and Randhawa won the Asian Tour Order of Merit by turns over the last two years. With Atwal breaking into the USPGA, Randhawa coming up with good finishes in Asia, Jeev sticking to the Japanese Tour and more Indians regularly playing on the Asian Tour, the rise of Indian golfers could not be ignored.

With this as the background, it was hardly surprising that every one expected an Indian to beat the field in the Hero Honda-sponsored 42nd edition of the Open at the Delhi Golf Club course.

During the four days of pulsating action, Atwal, Kahlon, Randhawa, Digvijay Singh, Jaiveer Virk and finally Ghei carried the hopes, but in the end, it was Thailand's Thaworn Wiratchant who continued with his top form to add a third title this season.

Wiratchant, who started the final day with a three-stroke lead at 14-under, just about managed to survive Ghei's charge to win by two. Wiratchant, winner of the Indonesian Open and the Taiwan Open earlier in the season, collected $47,250 to reinforce his position on top of the Asian Tour Order of Merit with $448,225. Ghei, who started the last day six strokes behind Wiratchant, closed the gap to a solitary stroke during the final afternoon. However, on the homestretch, Ghei was most unfortunate to miss three short birdie-putts in succession. Even though the local favourite signed off in style with a 22-yard chip-in birdie, he had to remain content with the runner-up cheque of $32,400. Ghei, as a result, moved up from No. 75 to No. 43 on the list of top earners with

$66,167 and saved his card for the next season on the Tour. This could be seen as a fine birthday present for Ghei but he knew well that it could have been even better.

Playing two holes ahead of Wiratchant and trailing by two shots, Ghei missed birdie-putts from under three feet on the 14th, about eight feet on the 15th and roughly 15 feet on the 16th where his putt stopped on the lip of the cup. It is to the credit of Ghei that he did not lose his concentration and stayed focussed. He two-putted the 17th and then came up with that memorable chip-in birdie from the fringe of the green, just above the bunker on the 18th hole.

The shot brought back memories of Ghei's historic 35-yard chip-in `eagle' on the same hole to win the $500,000 Gadgil Western Masters title in November 1995. Interestingly, this was the same event where Wiratchant made his debut in India but missed the `cut'.

Left with a mixed feelings, Ghei said it was nice to finish the way he did after playing four days of steady golf but regretted the missed birdie opportunities after creating them so splendidly. "Standing on the 10th tee (on the final day), I was hoping to make three birdies on the back-nine which I usually do during practice on this course. But after I missed the short putt on the 14th, I knew it would be very difficult because Wiratchant is not the sort of player who drops too many shots."

Wiratchant, who dropped two shots on the front nine but still took the turn with an even score on the final day, collected birdies on the 10th and 16th holes to set up his eventual victory margin.

Better luck next time... India's Gaurav Ghei, the runner-up.-SANDEEP SAXENA

"I knew Ghei was getting closer and closer so I concentrated more on keeping my tee-shots in the fairway. For that, I used my woods and irons but kept the driver in the bag," revealed Wiratchant, when asked whether he did something different when Ghei was threatening to take it away from him. "Overall, I guess I was lucky today and made fewer mistakes than others to win," was how the champion summed up his triumph.

Even after winning the title, Wiratchant maintained that he did not like the course in New Delhi. "This course punishes you if your tee-shot does not stay on the fairway," revealed the Thai when elaborating on his dislike for the course that invited lavish praise from the other pros. "On other courses, you can recover after a bad-tee shot but here, if your ball does not stay in the fairway, you pay heavily."

Fellow Thai Prom Meesawat, considered by many as one of the talented youngsters on the Tour, had no such feeling after sharing the third spot with the seasoned and friendly South African Hendrik Buhrmann at 13-under, one behind Ghei.

"I think it is a wonderful course," said the Meesawat, twice winner of the World junior title. "On this course, one has to try and hit straight and not necessarily too long," he said.

Buhrmann a regular in the Open and Masters in the decade, said, "I've never seen this course in better shape. The greens are faster than before and the ball is really rolling well," said the South African.

At one stage, Australia's Terry Pilkadaris looked like coming up with a better finish than his eventual fifth. Pilkadaris, who shares his birthday with Ghei, missed too many putts on the final day to card a 71, his worst in four days.

The early front-runners fell back on the last two days. Sri Lanka's Anura Rohana, who led at the end of the first day before Wiratchant monopolised the top position on the leaderboard for the rest of the rounds, shot 64 and 69 on the first and the third days but his rounds of 75 and 76 on the second and fourth rounds undid the good work and pushed him down to the joint 23rd spot. Similarly, Australia's Craig Warren slipped from the second spot after his first-round 65 to joint-50th following a tally of 289.

Germany's Joeren Lupprian, Pakistan's Mohammad Munir, Australia's Marcus Both and Gary Simpson were among those who figured briefly but prominently on the leaderboard before making way for the more consistent players.

LEADERBOARD

1. Thaworn Wiratchant (Tha): 68-66-68-70— 272; $47,250.00

2. Gaurav Ghei (Ind): 67-72-69-66— 274; $32,400.00

3. Hendrik Buhrmann (RSA): 66-70-69-70— 275; $16,425.00

3. Prom Meesawat (Tha): 69-67-69-70— 275; $16,425.00

5. Terry Pilkadaris (Aus): 67-70-70-71— 278; $11,640.00

6. Mukesh Kumar (Ind): 71-69-71-68— 279; $9,540.00

6. Jyoti Randhawa (Ind): 69-70-67-73— 279; $9,540.00

8. Ashok Kumar (Ind): 69-71-72-68— 280; $6,770.00

8. Rick Gibson (Can): 73-65-73-69— 280; $6,770.00

8. Shiv Kapur (Ind): 70-69-72-69— 280; $6,770.00

11. Arjun Atwal (Ind): 70-68-73-70— 281; $5,017.50

11. Shamim Khan (Ind): 71-68-71-71— 281; $5,017.50

11. Scott Taylor (USA): 71-67-72-71— 281; $5,017.50

11. Jaiveer Virk (Ind): 68-71-68-74— 281; $5,017.50

15. Jochen Lupprian (Ger): 70-72-71-69— 282; $3,980.00

15. Gary Simpson (Aus): 68-69-73-72— 282; $3,980.00

15. James Kingston (RSA): 76-66-68-72— 282; $3,980.00

15. Bryan Saltus (USA): 68-70-70-74— 282; $3,980.00

15. Digvijay Singh (Ind): 66-70-72-74— 282; $3,980.00

15. Harmeet Kahlon (Ind): 71-64-73-74— 282; $3,980.00