The Fung Con­quest

NI­CHOLAS FUNG SHEDS MIS­TER RUN­NER-UP TAG ENROUTE TO EUROPE AND BEYOND

Golf Digest (Malaysia) - - Contents 09/17 - BY ROGER RO­DRIGO

An an­i­mated Q+A with in-form Ni­cholas Fung.

He could have cho­sen the well-lit path laid out in col­le­giate golf in the United States. But some­how fate took Ni­cholas Fung on a dif­fer­ent course.

“Af­ter high school I was think­ing about study­ing in the USA but at the same time I went to the Asian Tour Q-School in Hua Hin. I man­aged to make it into the fi­nal stage and de­cided to turn pro in­stead,” re­called Fung of his de­ci­sion to turn pro in 2010. “I was ner­vous won­der­ing about (fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion) but thank­fully some of my un­cles de­cided to spon­sor my ex­penses in the early part.”

But the golf­ing gods were clearly on his side as it did not take long for the young Saba­han to make his mark in pro­fes­sional golf.

He won the bat­tle of the young ti­tans in the fi­nal match of the Mercedes-Benz Masters Vietnam in 2010. The 20-year-old beat 17-year-old Panuphol Pit­ta­yarat of Thai­land, 4 & 3, at Song Be Golf Re­sort.

The win came just seven months af­ter he turned pro on the heels of a stun­ning rookie sea­son where he made seven suc­ces­sive cuts on the Mercedes-Benz Tour.

It was his sec­ond tri­umph in Vietnam, hav­ing won the Vietnam Am­a­teur at age 17 in 2007.

The US$14,000 win­ner’s purse came in handy as he se­cured third place on the tour’s Order of Merit and qual­i­fied as one of the six spon­sor’s in­vites into the year’s Sin­ga­pore Open.

“Some­times it will take a player two to three years be­fore they can win their first pro tour­na­ment. I was very happy. I did not feel any nerves as I was a no­body then. I just went out and did my best,” he said.

Fung ad­mit­ted the go­ing was not easy in those years. “I prac­tised ev­ery day. The more shots I hit the more con­fi­dent I be­came.”

He did not hes­i­tate about play­ing any­where whether it was in Thai­land, In­done­sia, the Philip­pines or at home, each tour­na­ment be­com­ing an­other step up the learn­ing curve.

But soon it be­came ap­par­ent that the Asian Devel­op­ment Tour (ADT) would be­come a launch pad into his de­sired ter­ri­tory – the Asian tour.

But it wasn’t just his per­for­mances on the de­vel­op­men­tal tour that was rais­ing eye­brows but the im­pact he was mak­ing in Asian tour events in 2013.

Fung proved to be a pil­lar of con­sis­tency romp­ing home in the UMW Tem­pler Park Masters along­side six top 10 fin­ishes to head the ADT’s Order of Merit with prize­money to­talling US$43,000.

Fung would get his first bite of the cherry coming close to win­ning his maiden Asian tour ti­tle. He scorched the earth in the 39th In­done­sian Open, the coun­try’s old­est golf tour­na­ment with rounds of 66, 67, 72 and 66 for a 17-un­der 271 and a share of sec­ond place with Thai­land’s Chapchai Ni­rat, three shots be­hind win­ner Ga­gan­jeet Bhullar of In­dia.

“I never thought I could fin­ish so well in an Asian Tour tour­na­ment. That re­ally gave me a lot of con­fi­dence,” said the then 23-year-old.

A tied fifth place in the Re­sorts World Manila Masters cat­a­pulted the Malaysian into the top-60 on the Asian Tour Order of merit, earn­ing him a card for the 2014 sea­son.

Due to this he opened the door for three oth­ers in­clud­ing Malaysian Iain Steel to claim the top spots in the ADT and earn en­try into the tour as well.

Fung jumped 1,017 places in the world rank­ings at the be­gin­ning of the year into 441st po­si­tion and by virtue of be­ing the high­est ranked Malaysian made his de­but in the vaunted PGA Tour’s CIMB Clas­sic.

From 2013-2015 he did not veer out of the top-60 merit list, fin­ish­ing 36th in 2013

with win­nings of US$105,000, 49th the fol­low­ing year with US$79,000 and 35th in 2015 with earn­ings of US$134,000.

Be­com­ing a Tour reg­u­lar meant that Fung was set­ting a new bar for him­self – coming closer than ever to his main goal of break­ing through in the Asian tour.

By Novem­ber 2015 an­other glo­ri­ous op­por­tu­nity arose in the World Clas­sic Cham­pi­onship in Sin­ga­pore.

Lead­ing into the fi­nal round Fung found his neme­sis in Thai teen Dan­thai Boonma who caught up with him by the 13th.

The 25-year-old bo­geyed the 16th and could only par the re­main­ing holes and for the sec­ond time had to play brides­maid on the tour.

“The 16th hole cost me dearly. I missed a two-foot putt to save par,” groaned Fung. “Then on the 18th, I mis­judged my putt.”

It was not all bitter though as the sweet­ener came in the form of one big pay­day of US$82,500 (then RM362,700), the big­gest in his ca­reer then.

His next crack came in July, 2016 at the Yeangder Tour­na­ment Play­ers Cham­pi­onship when ly­ing third on the third day with a nine-un­der 207, four shots be­hind leader Scott Barr of Australia.

He looked poised for vic­tory un­til two bo­geys on the 15th and 17th de­railed his chances at the Linkou In­ter­na­tional Golf and Coun­try Club in Taipei.

A missed birdie putt on the 18th proved costly, which would have given him a play­off spot. He closed with a two-un­der 70 to fin­ish joint third with Barr on 11-un­der 277.

“I missed a short birdie putt on the 14th, which could have made a huge dif­fer­ence,” he said. “That af­fected my con­cen­tra­tion.”

His best chance though would come in Novem­ber’s Re­sort World Manila Masters held at the Manila South­woods Golf and Coun­try Club.

Fung closed with one of his best fin­ish­ing rounds on the tour hold­ing the

club­house lead with Amer­i­can rookie Sam Chien on 19-un­der.

How­ever In­dia’s S.S.P. Chawra­sia, play­ing later joined the duo, then beat them in the play­off for his first ti­tle out­side his home coun­try. The Malaysian was the early ca­su­alty, bo­gey­ing the first ex­tra hole to bow out.

Fung had noth­ing to be ashamed about as he put up a scin­til­lat­ing per­for­mance on the back nine, nail­ing five suc­ces­sive birdies from the 14th.

“Two of my good friends, Chan Shi­hchang and Pavit have already pro­gressed from be­ing ADT winners to winners on the Asian Tour. Their vic­to­ries have re­ally mo­ti­vated me and it’ll be my time very soon,” said Fung.

De­spite fall­ing short three times Fung never lost sight of his goal, be­liev­ing that he could one day etch his place in the win­ner’s box.

“My pol­icy is to make the cut. I hit pretty straight, most times on the fair­way and out of trou­ble. Thus when my putts drop I’m hit­ting a low round. As long as I con­tinue to put my­self in con­tention I be­lieve one day I will make it,” he said.

Those words proved prophetic as in June, 2017 the wait­ing game ended. In the run-up to his maiden vic­tory on the tour at the Queen’s Cup, though, in Koh Sa­mui, Thai­land, his health took a beat­ing.

“I was hav­ing a bad flu and fever when I played in the Thai­land Open where I missed the cut. On top of that my form in 2017 was be­low av­er­age as I was ad­just­ing my swing to add more yards to my drive,” he re­vealed.

De­spite those hic­cups his date with des­tiny was not to be de­nied.

Fung, the overnight leader be­came the fourth Malaysian af­ter Danny Chia, Airil Riz­man and Ben Leong to win on the Asian Tour, clos­ing with a four-un­der 67 to pip Thai­land’s Jazz Janewat­tananond by one shot.

Jazz threw down the gaunt­let with birdies at 17th and 18th for a five-un­der 66 set­ting the club­house lead at 14-un­der 270.

Fung raised his game when it mat­tered. He chipped in for a birdie from off the green on 16, then pro­duced a mas­terly wedge shot to two feet for an­other birdie at 17.

De­spite a loose drive Fung grit­tily hit back reach­ing the back of the 18th green in four. He made the four-foot putt for par to seal his first win.

“I al­ways wanted to win a big one with my fa­ther around. And I did it. He has helped me a lot in my ca­reer since I was young. It was also Fa­ther’s Day,” re­called Fung.

“He told me – ‘Good boy, you’re fi­nally won. I have been wait­ing for this a long time.’ You know he walked the course to fol­low me,” he re­lated.

“Even my girl­friend chal­lenged me say­ing – ‘You can­not marry me un­til you win’,” said Fung. “I pur­posely stayed far from the course, about forty min­utes’ drive although the of­fi­cial ho­tel was ten min­utes from the course to have peace and calm,” he re­vealed.

He took home a hand­some check for US$90,000 and the win will open more doors for him. Fung says the two-year ex­emp­tion on the tour gives him many op­tions where to ex­pand his play­ing sched­ule.

“I plan not to miss any of the re­main­ing Asian Tour legs as I aim to make the top ten in the Order of Merit and earn my place in the CIMB Clas­sic,” he said. “I also have been of­fered Cat­e­gory 18 on the Euro­pean Tour which al­lows me to play at least 10 tour­na­ments. I am also plan­ning to play the Q-school in Ja­pan.”

To pre­pare for his as­sault on Euro­pean fair­ways Fung has been ad­vised by his coach Steven Gi­u­liano to make changes to his swing to add more dis­tance off the tee.

“I have been work­ing on mak­ing my back­swing flat at the top. This is to en­able me to add 10 to 15 yards to my drives. Steven says this is nec­es­sary to play in Europe,” said Fung.

Over the last five years Fung has won US$660,387 (RM2,833,060) on the Asian tour. He has also re­ceived en­dorse­ments, one of which his per­sonal favourite re­mains Un­der Ar­mour.

“Years ago I saw this ap­parel which Hunter Ma­han was wear­ing to­gether with a cap and I liked it. I asked Ben (Leong) who was in US then to buy me one. So hap­pened, MST Golf got the dis­trib­u­tor­ship and they ap­proached me and I was happy to ac­cept. I started wear­ing it in 2015 and have a con­tract un­til 2019,” he con­firmed.

De­spite the heady achieve­ments and fi­nan­cial suc­cess he does not for­get the con­tri­bu­tions his fa­ther, Fung Ping, a re­tired con­trac­tor made to his ca­reer.

“I did not play the course (Sabah Golf & Coun­try Club) un­til af­ter two years of just prac­tis­ing my putting. He said it was the most im­por­tant part of the game,” re­called Fung.

“When I was 13 I was very ea­ger to play in State Am­a­teur like the Sabah Am­a­teur and other tour­na­ments but he said I wasn’t ready. He put me to the test, to hit my drive uphill 190 yards on the 10th hole but I couldn’t. He told me when I can I will be al­lowed to play,” re­mem­bers Fung.

With the win un­der his belt Fung is aim­ing to go where other Malaysians can only dream, the Euro­pean and Ja­pan tours.

“Hope­fully I can have a mixed sched­ule play­ing both,” says the man from Kota Kin­a­balu.

On the per­sonal front he also plans to pro­pose to his girl­friend, Suki Loh some­where next year at a se­cret lo­ca­tion.

Ni­cholas Fung, ranked 223 in the world has still many fair­ways to walk, greens to hole out and tro­phies to col­lect in a ca­reer far from over.

“I NEVER THOUGHT I COULD FIN­ISH SO WELL IN AN ASIAN TOUR TOUR­NA­MENT. THAT RE­ALLY GAVE ME A LOT OF CON­FI­DENCE.”

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