Kiradech leads Asian assault

Kiradech Aphibarnrat ©CIMB
Kiradech Aphibarnrat ©CIMB

Kuala Lumpur: Thai star Kiradech Aphibarnrat eclipsed world number three Phil Mickelson with a stellar five-under-par 67 for tied fourth place after the first round of the US$7 million CIMB Classic on Thursday. 

The current Asian Tour’s Order of Merit leader produced a superb inward 31 to outscore playing partner Mickelson by four shots and title holder Nick Watney, who struggled to a 75 in the event sanctioned by the Asian Tour and PGA TOUR.

With the CIMB Classic counting towards the Merit race in Asia, the long-hitting Thai gave himself the best possible start alongside some illustrious company as he ended the day four shots behind leader Ryan Moore of the United States.

“I’m very proud with the way I started today. I birdied the first hole and then missed a couple of chances but on the back nine, I hit five birdies. I played well and made a lot of putts which was fun,” said Kiradech.

As one of Asia’s emerging young stars, Kiradech has a great liking for the Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club’s West course as he won the Malaysian Open here in March for his second Asian Tour victory which gave him a winner’s exemption on the European Tour as well.

A triumph on Sunday against the stars from the PGA TOUR will give Kiradech direct access to the US and also a place in the Masters Tournament, the year’s opening Major, and a host of other invitational tournaments in 2014. The CIMB Classic has attracted 18 players from the world’s top-50 this week.

Kiradech is keeping his feet firmly on the ground despite outplaying Mickelson, who found trouble with two double bogeys in his round of 71. The Thai said Mickelson, a five-time Major champion, had offered some encouraging words during their round which attracted the largest gallery.

“It was great playing with Phil. He’s a fantastic player. Every time I play with him, it’s always a good experience. We spoke a lot during the round and he was encouraging me to get my way onto the PGA TOUR. I enjoyed the experience,” said the 24-year-old.

“At the start, I felt a bit nervous. Before I hit my first tee shot (on the 10th hole which he birdied), I just thought about whacking the ball. I didn’t think about wherever it was going to go, whether it would go into the water or hook into the left trees. I just tried to hit the first shot with a good feel. I’m glad I did.”

The burly Thai needed only 28 putts in his round, saying the West course was playing harder than at the Malaysian Open. “The rough is thick and the greens are firm and fast. It’s different putting on these greens and the lines seem different too. (But) I read the greens well. I know the type of the grass but the rough is a bit different. It’s a good opening round and it will give me a chance to catch the leader. Three more rounds and I’ll stick to my game plan,” said Kiradech.

Korea’s K.J. Choi, who is an Asian Tour honorary member, ensured a strong Asian presence on the leaderboard with a solid 68 which included six birdies and two bogeys.

“Yeah, it was a very good finish,” said Choi, who is an eight-time winner in the U.S. “It was better than what I expected. The two bogeys, starting out were pretty bad, but right after that I hit a sand wedge from 107 yards to one foot (on 14) . That kind of started the momentum.”

As the first Asian Tour member who hit it big in America, Choi hopes that the Asian players will take advantage of the CIMB Classic being the first official FedExCup event in the region.

“You know, I think it definitely opens up doors for a lot of the Asian Tour players. It gives them an opportunity to check and see how the fellow competitors on the PGA TOUR are playing. And it only raises the level of play for the Asian Tour players,” said Choi.