JOHN Daly’s role as star attraction in the inaugural Saltire Energy Paul Lawrie Matchplay may have been short-lived but the man dubbed as his Asian equivalent lasted the distance at Murcar Links.
Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat, a burly big-hitter, beat Swede Robert Karlsson with a last-hole birdie in the 18-hole final on the outskirts of Aberdeen after knocking out Marc Warren, the last remaining home hope, in the morning semi-finals.
It was the 26-year-old’s fifth professional victory but first outside of his home continent. He underlined his potential with a brace of wins on the Asian Tour before landing a first European Tour triumph in the 2013 Malaysian Open, then won the Shenzhen International in China earlier this year.
“The next step for me was to win in Europe and I’m happy to have achieved that and proud of myself,” said Aphibarnrat, who picked up a cheque for just over £120,000 after holding off a spirited fightback from Karlsson, a two-times Ryder Cup player.
Three up with four to play, Aphibarnrat, who was previously known as Anujit Hirunratanakorn before his family decided to change his name for “good luck”, conceded the 15th after finding thick stuff on the right from the tee then knocking his second into a ditch.
Karlsson, a former European No 1, also won the 16th, where his opponent was unable to save par from a greenside bunker, before rolling in a nine-foot birdie putt at the next to square the match. Both players missed the fairway with their tee shots at the last but, taking advantage of finding a decent lie in the right rough, Aphibarnrat coaxed a wedge to four feet and rolled in the putt for victory.
Still in short sleeves – the final day had started in glorious sunshine but the temperature dropped as clouds rolled in after lunch – Aphibarnrat beat his chest in delight as he savoured winning an event that had also featured his golfing idol.
“After the first two or three years of playing golf, I looked at John Daly’s swing over and over,” he said. “He has a long backswing and he is a big guy. He was one of my idols so I studied him.
“He won two majors and was one of the best players in the world. I remember a long time ago some guy kept telling me that if I had a long backswing I would not grow up to be a professional. Today I can show them it is not just the backswing, it is how you hole putts to make low scores. That was why John Daly won two majors and I was so proud to be described as the John Daly of Asia.
“I didn’t speak to him this week but we have played a couple of times before. We played together in the Thailand Golf Championship and he was a nice guy.”
Aphibarnrat, won his age group at the Junior World Golf Championships in 2003 and 2004, had arrived in the Granite City on the back of four successive missed cuts, including the Scottish Open and the Open Championship.
It quickly became apparent, though, that match-play was a format that suits his aggressive style of play and, for some, it was almost a final before the final when he beat Northern Irishman Michael Hoey 7&6 in the last eight. “I didn’t really expect this win, but I was hoping to be here until Saturday as my flight to Thailand was on Monday and I couldn’t change that,” he said.
The odd eyebrow was raised when he didn’t even try and hole his fourth shot after finding the hazard at the 15th, but Aphibarnrat insisted he knew what he was doing. “It’s maybe ten years since I played 36 holes in the one day and my body was getting a bit tired,” he revealed. “So I didn’t hit another shot at the 15th because I wanted to retain my focus for the last three holes.
“Robert is such a good player, a Ryder Cup player as well. After he got back to all square after 17, my caddie told me that I just had to stick to my gameplan.” Basically admitting he had nothing to lose at the last, which might not necessarily have been the case in a stroke-play event, he added: “I knew I could take a ten and still finish second.”
While disappointed to fall at the final hurdle, Karlsson was pleased to have ended a dismal run of six missed cuts by giving himself a chance of his first European Tour triumph in nearly five years. “I did much better than I expected so I will take a lot of positives out of this week,” said the 45-year-old, who’d survived missing a short putt on the last green to beat Englishman David Howell at the 20th in his semi-final.
Paying tribute to his conqueror, the 11-times European Tour winner added: “Kiradech is difficult to play against because his aggressive style of play makes it tricky for you to stay in your own game. He’s a great player and made a fantastic birdie at the last so deserved it.”
There was no denying that and it was fitting that the event got a winner whose game was made for match-play.