A day of high drama on a tough Tampines golf course

THERE was an empty chair in a quiet corner of the clubhouse lobby of Tanah Merah Country Club's Tampines course last Saturday (Aug 13).

This reporter was about to walk towards it when Thai golfer Phachara Khongwatmai - one of the players at the Asian Tour's US$1.5 million International Series event - came forward and politely asked if he could have it. I obliged willingly, then asked him what he wanted to do.

"Sit quiet, and think about putting," said the 25-year-old, who was then the joint-leader with Malaysia's Gavin Green on the penultimate day of the competition.

After rounds of five-under 67 and 66, Phachara shot a 69 (which could have been a 64 if he had converted 3 earlier putts). It was little wonder he needed some time to mull over his efforts on the greens.

Like almost all the professionals, he enjoyed his outings on the pristine Tampines course which provided a stiff challenge to the 144 players.

But the aspect of putting on greens that read between 10.5 and 11.5 on the stimpmeter made the difference between victory and defeat, between making the cut and not.

On the final day of action on Sunday, Phachara was edged out to the runner-up spot because he missed a crucial putt on the par-four 17th. Green missed taking the event into a play-off because his final putt from 15 feet veered slightly left and stopped roughly four inches from the hole.

That helped pave the way for eventual winner Nitithorn Thippong of Thailand to claim the trophy because he converted a difficult 20-foot putt on the par-five 18th , thanks to some great line reading by his trustworthy caddie Thirdeong Pratbepthong.

Singapore amateur James Leow raised his game to finish eight-under in joint-31st spot, thanks partly to some efficient line reading and with help by his caddie, national coach Matt Ballard.

Local professional Mitchell Slorach lost his rhythm from a four-under first nine on the first day of the tournament to a woeful 78, due partly to some woeful putting that ruined his chances of making the cut.

Singapore's top golfer Mardan Mamat qualified for the weekend's play because he converted his last putt on Friday to be just inside the cut line.

The putting issues aside, this Asian Tour event had its fair share of talking points that culminated on a day of high drama that excited the fans in the gallery.

Patrick Reed, the pre-tournament favourite and 2018 US Masters winner, finished in a tie with Leow. The icing on the cake for Reed was an ace on the final day on the 170-metre 14th, just 2 days after India's Aman Raj bagged a hole-in-one on the same hole.

South African Scott Vincent's 64 on the first day and Australian Todd Sinnott's eight-under in the final round were noteworthy efforts on a challenging course that had registered the same score only once previously through Singapore's Gregory Foo.

On the flip side, the course tamed some of the region's big names such as former Singapore Open winners Prayad Marksaeng, Thaworn Wiratchant, Jeev Milkha Singh and Zaw Moe. The likes of South Korean Bio Kim and Thailand's Rattanon Wannaarichan boarded an early flight home after some below-par performances.

Nitithorn's big win was celebrated by the fans even before the event was officially over. After finishing his round on minus-16 with that impeccable saving putt for par on the last hole, he waited to see what would unfold during the last flight.

And when then co-leader Chan Shih-chang from Taiwan hit a poor drive into the water and Green, one shot behind, sent his errant tee-shot into a difficult position, the fans declared the Thai as champion and even lined up to start taking photographs with him.

Nitithorn, with a big grin on his face, obliged but made sure everyone knew at that time that he was still not the winner, stressing that "anything can happen" in the sport.

Meanwhile, there was a frantic search for Chan's golf ball, and after almost 15 minutes of deliberation it was decided that Chan had to go back to the tee-box for his third shot. As for Green, he was fortunate to find his ball on terrible rough, and managed to chip back onto the fairway.

Suddenly, there was more drama as the siren sounded to signal a stoppage in play due to lightning. When the action resumed after a 40-minute wait, Nitithorn's rivals simply could not muster anything to overhaul the Thai at the top.

Chan, who was out of contention by then, struggled to a double-bogey. Phachara's birdie was not good enough and, during a complete hush, Green just missed a 15-footer for a birdie that could have forced a play-off.

Nitithorn, who turned pro in 2015, was showered with bottles of water by his teammates, said: "I made some great putts, kept the ball mostly in play. This is the biggest win of my career. It's fantastic. I have practised so hard for this. I hit a lot of greens this week and had a lot of birdie putts. I think my mentality was great."

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