No questioning teens' golf talents
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
Ayaka Kaneko, Kimberly Kim, Stephanie Kono and Michelle Wie are the answer to the $5,000 question of why Hawai'i has its own U.S. Open sectionals.
All four tee off in the 61st U.S. Women's Open today. Kim is 14, the others are 16. It is a precocious display of Island talent unprecedented in the history of the world's most prestigious women's golf tournament.
"It is a product of Hawai'i junior golf, golf pros in Hawai'i and the athletes we have in Hawai'i," says Turtle Bay Director of Golf Matt Hall, who used to coach Kim at Hapuna and will caddie for her this week. "We in Hawai'i knew we had that talent all along. Michelle deserves all the credit for going out and pushing the envelope.
"The other girls went in their own directions, but they were encouraged to push their own envelopes at AJGA and USGA events. Stephanie and Mari (Chun) started playing real well, and now Kimberly and Ayaka. They started to feel they can play with the rest of the country. It's a huge deal."
Mary Bea Porter-King convinced the USGA that Hawai'i needed its own sectionals while she was on the Executive Committee, citing the tremendous cost of the "ocean gap." A few years ago she estimated it would cost a Kaua'i golfer $5,000 to work through a local qualifier on O'ahu to a Mainland sectional and then play in the Open.
No one else faced that obstacle, Porter argued successfully. Hawai'i has held island-wide local qualifiers for the men and its own sectionals for men and women the last three years.
There was grumbling from the Mainland each year, but only a handful of players paid to come here and try and qualify in the relatively small sectionals.
COAST TO COAST
This year, Wie was medalist at O'ahu's Open local qualifier and beat or tied 95 men at the sectional in New Jersey. That was not good enough to make her the first female to play in the U.S. Open, but the USGA gave her an exemption into this week's Open.
The other three Hawai'i teens proved they can compete with anyone. Kono won the four-way sectional for Hawai'i's lone U.S. Women's Open berth. Kaneko and Kim rose to the top of large Mainland sectionals.
Kaneko, who will be a junior at Sacred Hearts in August, tied for 19th in a 136-player field at Baltimore. She and Kono both shot 5-over-par 149 in difficult conditions on opposite coasts. Kim, the youngest golfer in the field, shot 150 and shared seventh at the Michigan sectional, beating some 80 players.
Today is their payoff. They swear they are ready.
WORK IN PROGRESS
Kaneko has been playing on the East Coast more than a month and worked with David Ishii the month before that.
"I need work with the putting and we changed my swing a little bit," said Kaneko, who moved here from Japan four years ago. "David made a big difference."
Kono has been focusing on hitting her driver straighter and longer — "I need to hit my driver as far as I can here." She has thoroughly enjoyed playing before a crowd in practice rounds.
Kono looks at the Atlantic Ocean on Newport's back nine and imagines she is home. "It is kind of familiar," Kono said. "I can't tell the difference between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans."
Kim came to Newport after falling in the U.S. Women's Public Links final Sunday. Her altered travel plans included an 18-hour layover in Chicago and the loss of her clubs, which arrived at 3:30 p.m. yesterday.
By then, she and Hall had put together a new set with the help of club reps. The only clubs Kim will use today that are the same as Sunday are her 3-wood, and irons 5 through 9.
"The nice part is she left the course happy and with a little confidence," Hall said. "Now she feels she has the best equipment for this tournament."
Kim will carry four fairway woods, which won't be unusual. Kevin Ralbovsky, Kono's coach and caddie, says the majority of the second shots will be in the 180- to 220 -yard range.
"The course is designed to be hard and fast," Ralbovsky said. "Now it's soft, slow and long."
That might help Wie, who is nearly 6 feet 1 and hits it farther than practically any woman on the planet. But for Kono, Kim and Kaneko (the tallest of the qualifying trio at 5-7), it could be the ultimate golf challenge.
The caddies are worried about navigating their young golfers through the swamp, which has no yardage markers because there are no sprinkler heads. Hall says the yardage book is like "reading a treasure map," with landmarks like telephone poles, tent tops, trees, big rocks and even a crow's nest.
But more than the golf, they are worried about their players' psyches in the biggest tournament of their lives.
Kaneko is trying to treat it like every other tournament. Ishii's only advice was to relax.
ENJOY THE MOMENT
Ralbovsky is also trying to get Kono to ease up and mimic the demeanor of Tadd Fujikawa, Ralbovsky's 15-year-old student who was so popular at the U.S. Open two weeks ago.
"Tadd really enjoyed himself and had a smile on his face all the time," Ralbovsky recalled. "Stephanie is taking it a little more seriously. She gets into a zone and tunes everything out, but I really want her to enjoy it.
"We don't go into this tournament expecting to win. Making the cut is something that's on our minds, but even it is not a real good goal. The goal is to learn how to play these really tough championship courses, try to build each time you experience one of these types of venues. Tadd had his opportunity and did a great job and got a lot of confidence from it."
Even Fujikawa, who is home and was scheduled to caddie for a friend at yesterday's U.S. Kids qualifier, was surprised at how calm he felt. "It was kinda overwhelming, but at the same time so fun," he recalled of the Open. "I'll never forget it."
Hall is intent on letting Kim "be herself" and not change for the prestigious trappings. It helps that there are 19 teenagers playing and most know each other from other events. Today, he hopes to give Kim a yardage and a target and have her let it fly.
"I'm trying to let her know the hard part is done," Hall said. "She got here."
They all did, despite the "ocean gap." Ralbovsky believes their age might be an advantage.
"They don't know the history and importance of the tournament," he said. "It allows them to play a little more of their normal game. They're not as jittery as I would be if I was playing. You see Michelle, too ... often she can just brazenly play well without realizing the importance of it all and the history it's making."
Besides, there are all those distractions. Kim is an autograph magnet in Newport, particularly among the 6- to 8-year-old set.
"She's enjoying all that," Hall said. "For me to be able to watch people appreciate her so much they want her name is a pretty neat thing. It won't go to her head. She's more excited about what they have for dessert in the clubhouse than autographs."
Reach Ann Miller at email@example.com.