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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 1, 2006

Wie not only Isle golfer seeking U.S. Open spot

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 •  Holes in one

By Bill Kwon

Alex Ching, a 16-year-old Punahou School tennis champion, was one of three golfers who advanced from the local qualifier for the U.S. Open to the sectional qualifier at Po'ipu Bay on Monday.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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All attention will be focused on Michelle Wie at the Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, N.J., on Monday as she tries to qualify for this year's 106th U.S. Open.

The only female, most certainly, but 13 other golfers with Hawai'i ties will be competing in 36-hole sectional qualifiers that day as well — from Po'ipu Bay, Kaua'i, to the Bay Area and in Columbus, Ohio.

Dean Wilson will be among a number of PGA Tour pros in the Columbus sectional after playing in Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament that began today. As a tour member, Wilson didn't have to go through local qualifying.

"It's great stuff if Michelle makes it," said Wilson, who tied for 30th in the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., and is looking forward to playing for the first time at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., site of this year's U.S. Open on June 15 to 18.

Jim Seki, 25, a former Punahou School and Stanford star who's now on the Canadian Tour, is entered in the sectional at the Lake Merced Golf Club in Daly City after making it through the local qualifying in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Kaua'i's Casey Watabu, a University of Nevada senior, also qualified, winning medalist honors at the Golf Club at Genoa Lakes, Nev. But Watabu has opted to return home for the sectional at the Po'ipu Bay Golf Course.

If Wie's attempt to become the first female to play in the U.S. Open is the biggest headline grabber, the dogfight for the one spot among 10 golfers in the Po'ipu Bay sectional is the most intriguing.

It would have been a sensational double-dip if Wie, the medalist in the O'ahu local qualifier at Turtle Bay, had played in the sectional at Po'ipu Bay.

However, with the McDonald's LPGA Championship in Maryland next week, the New Jersey sectional was a better fit for Wie's itinerary. Even if it meant competing against PGA Tour pros heading to the Barclays Classic in upstate New York.

Watabu, on the other hand, worked his schedule — and it's a tight fit — to play at home. He's in the NCAA Championship in Sun River, Ore., which ends Saturday.

"I'll be home," said Watabu, who's on quite a roll, having won the U.S. Open local qualifying in Nevada with a 6-under 66 and sharing medalist honors in the NCAA West Regionals after a career-low 64 in the final round.

Watabu never considered any other sectional except Po'ipu Bay.

"I play there all the time," said Watabu, who will catch a flight home from Portland, with his coach's blessing while the rest of his teammates fly back to Reno, Nev.

Joining Watabu, a 2001 Kaua'i High graduate, at Po'ipu Bay will be amateur Eric Horner, 30, another Garden Island native, who won the local qualifying at the course that hosts the PGA Grand Slam of Golf.

The others in the Hawai'i sectional, one of only 12 in the United States, are Maui professionals David Havens and Darren Summers, both of Kapalua Resort, and Makena's Brian Sasada; O'ahu qualifiers Joe Phengsavath and 15-year-old Tadd Fujikawa, and Big Island qualifiers Philip Chun and 16-year-old Alex Ching, who just completed his sophomore year at Punahou School. Also, Kiahuna pro Ron Castillo, Jr., who got in as an alternate after finishing second to Horner.

Sean Maekawa, first alternate from the Big Island qualifying, will join Wilson in the Columbus sectional.

Chun and Ching went to the local qualifying at the Waikoloa Beach & Golf Resort even though they're from O'ahu. And for different reasons.

Chun, a 41-year-old local pro who's more known for being amateur standout Mark Chun's "kid" brother, decided to combine two trips in one, playing first in the Kona Open.

It paid off as he took medalist honors with a 3-under 67 in only his second attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open.

"I figured both (local and sectional) qualifiers are in Hawai'i. Take a chance and try," said Chun, who last tried to qualify for the major championship 10 years ago.

It's also about as many years since he played 36 holes in one day, according to Chun, who works at the Pro-Am Golf Shop. "I'm anxious to see what it's going to be like."

Ching, who finished a stroke behind Chun, is the biggest surprise among the local players who advanced to the sectionals.

For one, he doesn't even play for his school's golf team because the sport conflicts with the tennis season.

So instead of playing in the recent state high school golf tournament, he and partner Jon Wong took the state doubles title in helping Punahou win its 16th straight boys' tennis championship.

Just coming off his tennis season, Ching decided to enter the Waikoloa qualifying, which was a week after the O'ahu qualifying at Turtle Bay.

It gave the youngster time to brush up on his golf game at the Oahu Country Club, where his dad, attorney Steve Ching, is a member.

As in Chun's case, going to the Big Island local qualifying paid off as well for Ching, who can now concentrate on golf now that his tennis season's done.