SINGAPORE, February 4, 2008 – The world's local bank has decided to use its two sponsor invites for the US$2 million HSBC Women's Champions to boost golf in the Southeast Asian region. Malaysia's Siew-Ai Lim and Thailand's Virada Nirapathpongporn – the two highest ranked ASEAN golfers in the year-ending Rolex Rankings – have both been offered a passport into the event at Singapore's Tanah Merah Country Club from February 28th to March 2nd.
The HSBC invitations give Siew-Ai and Virada places alongside superstars such as current world number one Lorena Ochoa of Mexico and LPGA Hall of Fame members Annika Sorenstam of Sweden and Korean legend Se-Ri Pak. The inaugural HSBC Women's Champions has also attracted entries from every single one of the 2007 LPGA tournament winners and all of the Major winners of the past three years.
"Apart from the obvious of getting to play in a US$2 million tournament, it's an opportunity to play in a brilliant field," declared the 34-year-old Siew-Ai, after studying an entry list that is unlikely to be bettered all year.
"It's not just an LPGA event; it's the top players from Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe. Basically it's the best players from all over the world. It sounds like an awesome field."
Those sentiments were echoed by Virada, also known by her nickname "Oui", who was equally as excited to find herself included in such world-class company.
"It's a fantastic opportunity and it was such a nice surprise to be invited," added Virada, the 2003 US Women's Amateur Champion. "I heard that Natalie (Gulbis) called it the first Major in Asia, and when you consider who has entered you can really understand why. I'm just so happy to be given the chance to be part of it."
The qualification criteria for the tournament reserves places for Major champions since 2005, last year's LPGA tournament champions, Order of Merit winners from the world's other major women's tours and for the victors of selected key tournaments all over the world, but HSBC's Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan said the bank wanted to ensure the best players from ASEAN also got their chance.
"We're bringing together a world class field of champions from all over the globe to compete in what we believe will quickly be recognised as the best women's golf event in Asia, but we also want to contribute to the development of golf in the region," Morgan explained.
"Siew-Ai and Virada are, to all effects and purposes, the champions of the ASEAN region and deserve to represent their countries and to represent Southeast Asia. These invitations, coupled with the place for the local Singapore qualifier - Amelia Yong - and our grassroots schemes in Singapore, are proof of our long-term commitment to the growth of the sport in the region," he added.
Siew-Ai backed up Morgan's comments by adding that simply staging the HSBC Women's Champions in the Southeast Asia will help the young talent in the area who dream of becoming world-class players.
"In the US a lot of junior golfers have sponsors exemptions that give them the opportunity to play with the best players and gain experience. Most junior golfers in this region only get to watch the LPGA on TV in the middle of the night. With the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore it becomes more of a reality. It becomes a more attainable goal," she said, adding that she personally treasures a rare opportunity to play for her friends and family.
"A lot of my local fans, people like the members at the golf clubs where I practice and play, are always asking me when they'll get to see me play locally. It's so nice to play somewhere nearby. I think some of them will be going down to see me and I have some relatives in Singapore too."
For Virada, whose best result of 2007 came in her home event – 22nd at the Honda LPGA Thailand – another chance to play on familiar territory is equally welcome.
"It is always nice to come back and play in Asia - where it all started for me. I'm so proud to see how far Asian golf has come in recent years and I will certainly try to do whatever I can to help continue this development." she said.
Ranked 235th and 236th in the world at the end of 2007, Siew-Ai and Virada have plenty in common, apart from their rating in the golf world. Both have shown they can be truly competitive on the LPGA. The Kuala Lumpur-born Siew-Ai had a career best runner-up finish in the 2004 Kellog-Keebler Classic and was 10th in 2007's Michelob Ultra Open, while 25-year-old Virada has a 5th-placed finish from the 2006 LPGA Corning Classic on her resume. Both understand golf's mind games better than most having majored in Psychology in the United States where both won First Team All-America honours.
The Bangkok-born Virada, however, had the more successful amateur career, as well as winning the US Women's Amateur Championship she also claimed both the individual and team titles for Duke in the 2002 NCAA Golf Championships.