Jennie K. should open field to young talent
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By Bill Kwon
By Bill Kwon
The 58th Jennie K. Wilson Invitational hosted by the Mid-Pacific Country Club is now history with Xyra Suyetsugu, a University of Hawai'i senior, as its latest and quite deserving champion.
But if the Jennie K. is to remain as one of the four women's major golf championships locally, it needs to change a ruling instituted this year preventing golfers younger than 16 from entering. There are simply too many talented young golfers who would be excluded from the first women's major of the year. And the ruling would have erased some of the other deserving names on the Jennie K. trophy.
Two-time defending champion Kristina Merkle, who lost a bid for a three-peat by one stroke to Suyetsugu, won the 2005 Jennie K. when she was 14. Hilo's Kira-Ann Murashige was 15 when she won in 2002 and Stephanie Kono took the 2003 title at 13. Michelle Wie, then 11 years old, holds the record as the youngest Jennie K. champion when she won in 2001. Until Wie's victory, Jackie Yates held that distinction for 50 years when she won her first Jennie K. title in 1951 as a precocious 14-year-old phenom from the Big Island.
Who's to say what other young golfers would be deprived from winning the Jennie K. if the rule isn't changed.
Quite frankly, says Jean Hashimoto, this year's tournament director, the Jennie K. has gone back and forth over the years regarding the age limitation of its participants. Obviously, there was no age limit when Yates won three of the first five Jennie K. Invitationals. Although I wouldn't be surprised if that's when the idea of keeping out younger golfers first occurred to some folks. Then I remember the time when Kristll Caldeira, a dominant junior golfer in her day, was prohibited from playing.
The age-limit rule was tweaked and re-tweaked until it looked as though it finally met everyone's satisfaction. That is, until this year, and quite unintentionally, according to Hashimoto. It seems there was a mixup, a failure to communicate.
"I thought it was a wonderful format," said Hashimoto, referring to the previous tournament policy allowing anyone 16 and older to play, no matter the handicap, and those younger than that age requiring a single-digit handicap.
"Somehow, during the committee meetings, we got mixed up as to what we intended to do. And it came out on the application that the player needed to be 16 and older. Once it was on the application, it was hard for us to rescind it.
"I think we're going to go back to what was really good to get everybody in. Sixteen and older, no matter what handicap you are, you can play. Below 16, you need to be a single digit. I don't know if I'll be back again (on the tournament committee), but my recommendation will be that we go back to the original one we had talked about and intended to do."
In the meantime, what a shock it was for some of the younger players, including 14-year-old Cyd Okino, who had played in four previous Jennie K. tournaments, the first as a 9-year-old. Suddenly, she couldn't play this year.
"I don't like the rule. I really wanted to play this year," said Okino, who helped Punahou School to the girls state championship as a freshman. She caddied for Hayley Young on Saturday, but stayed away from the golf course in Sunday's final round because she wanted to play, not caddie.
"I didn't blame her," said Cyd's father, Cyrus, who told her, "It's something you've got to live with."
The Okinos said they had been looking forward to playing this year. "She was practicing for it when we found out. She was kind of disappointed," Cyrus said.
"I don't like it but I respect it. I can see why they want to keep some of the young kids out. I understand what they have to do but I think they should try to give some exemptions to the younger kids capable of playing in this tournament. As for the younger girls, they've got plenty more years to play the Jennie K. It's not like this tournament is going away. This is more for the older players."
Added Cyd: "I can see why they made an age limit. Some people are not mature yet. But I know a lot of young golfers who know what's expected of them. If they don't, they shouldn't play. But a lot of them know what's expected of them."
The irony of this year's age limit was not lost on Merkle, who couldn't have played if it were in effect the previous two years, which paid off in back-to-back championships for her.
"They can't take those away from me," said Merkle, a Moanalua High School junior who won the state title two weeks ago. She was 14 when she won her first Jennie K. in 2005 and 15 when she ran away with a 13-stroke victory last year.
"I don't think it was really fair," Merkle said. "But the tournament committee is the one that made the decision. Like, it left out a lot of players like Cyd Okino and Alina Ching and a lot of other really good players. Hopefully, next year they might lower it to like 14 or something."
Okino, Punahou teammate Ching, and Kaua'i High School's Kelli Oride, the Kaua'i Interscholastic Federation champion, were three of five freshmen who finished among the top 15 in the state girls golf tournament at Wailua, Kaua'i. Yet, all weren't eligible to play in the Jennie K. because they were too young. Ching, who played last year, would have entered again.
Clearly, the Jennie K. sent a wrong message. A tournament that wants to be considered a women's major should include the best possible players, irrespective of age.
"Absolutely," says Hamamoto. "We want to have the best players, no matter how young they are. That's the mission of the Jennie K. — to showcase the best players. We're stifling and hurting ourselves by not bringing out the good players that deserve to be out on the course."
It's something that the tournament committee might have to revisit and adjust, said Bobbi Kokx, 44, who played in her first Jennie K. in 1982 as a freshman on the UH golf team. The 1984 winner, Kokx won again in 2000 to be the last golfer not a teenager to win the Jennie K. until Suyetsugu did it this year.
Anyway, let's hope this was just a brief aberration in the storied history of the Jennie K.
Reach Bill Kwon at email@example.com