Tim Maitland in Hawaii
Thailand's Russamee Gulyanamitta stunned the world's leading women's golf tour by emerging from almost total obscurity to challenge the legendary Annika Sorenstam for the LPGA's SBS Open title, before settling for a share of second place.
Whether it was the Golf Channel commentators stumbling over the syllables or other caddies and players, the response was the same as the 31-year-old, who plays under an abbreviated first name to save the tongue-twisted American audience, charged onto the leaderboard: Russy Who?
Gulyanamitta raced into the reckoning with three birdies on the front nine at Hawaii's Turtle Bay Resort on her way to a four-under-par final round and an eight-under-par total to finish two shots behind the Swedish Hall of Famer.
"It's unbelievable. I didn't dream this. My plan for the week was just to make a lot of birdies. I never thought I'd be in second place," said Russamee, who is known to her family and friends as "Fon" (rain) because, her mother tells her, that was the weather when she was born.
A graduate in Industrial Engineering from Chulalongkorn University and an individual and team gold medalist at the 1999 SEA Games (South East Asian Games), Russamee had won only US$4,411 dollars in her entire LPGA career. That is until she holed a 40-foot putt for birdie on the 18th hole, celebrating with an ecstatic dance around the green, to clinch a US$75,867 pay day.
"It's not the money. I just feel so great that I represented my country well," said Fon, who estimated she earned only US$50 or 60,000 last year playing on the Ladies Asian Golf Tour and Phoenix, Arizona's Cactus Tour.
"This is the best tour in the world for women golfers and I'm proud to be representing Thailand. I'd never have got this far if it wasn't for the support of Singha."
For a short while it looked as if the Rayong-born Gulyanamitta might even have a shot at a play-off as her birdie on the final hole drew her level with Sorenstam. However the Swede was busy making birdies on the 16th and 17th holes to finally draw clear her challengers and deny Fon a shot at a maiden LPGA victory and an unexpected trip back to the ASEAN region to play in the US$2 million HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore next week (28th Feb – 2nd March).
"It would have been great to win and great to have earned a place in the HSBC event. I was thinking I might have got into a play-off and was wondering "can I do it?" I think it would have been fun. I will try to qualify for the HSBC Women's Champions next year. It's so close to home and I really wanted to get into the field. Next year would be great."
After just one tournament this year is already great for Russy, who won her way back on to the LPGA at the Q School at the end of 2007 gaining fully-exempt status for the first time. Her original spell on the LPGA in 2003 was a frustrating one. Playing with only conditional status she often had to enter the single-round Monday qualifying tournaments, which eroded her morale.
"It was a tough experience for me. It made it hard to travel. It got me for a while. When you don't qualify on the Monday it's hard to stay motivated and to keep practicing. I had a tough time for a couple of years," she said.
Gulyanamitta rediscovered her enthusiasm for the sport on the Ladies Asian Golf Tour (LAGT), where was runner-up twice in 2006 (Malaysian Ladies Open and Hong Kong Ladies Masters) and once in 2007 (DLF Women's Indian Open) and on the Cactus Tour where last year she won events at The Wigwam and Superstition Springs courses.
"I loved playing on the LAGT. I have a lot of friends and I learned to enjoy myself more," she said.
"Also on the Canadian and Cactus Tours, I learned that I didn't have to be on the LPGA to enjoy my career. It made me more confident. It's a bit like Andre Agassi when he was struggling and went back on the mini tours to regain his confidence."
Fon's runner-up finish and bumper pay day will boost that confidence still further, but it will also allow her to maintain the light schedule that suits her.
"I don't want to play a lot, because if I'm in a tournament I need to be 100 per cent focused. It's not in my personality to play every week. I'm lazy I guess!" she joked.
"A lot of my golf game is mental. I need a lot of time to meditate and focus and I find that quite tiring. Also I have a bad spine, so I can't play all the time. That's why I had to stop playing on the LAGT when I was leading the order of merit in the Macau LAGT Championship in 2006."
Picture by Alex Broadway/SWpix.com