Kua captures spot in Sony
• Photo gallery: Sony Open qualifier
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
TJ Kua's year of living large rolled into 2010 yesterday when the 115-pound golf terror from Líhu'e qualified for next month's Sony Open in Hawai'i.
He has history on his side. Kua's uncle, Hawai'i Golf Hall of Famer David Ishii, won the PGA Tour event at Waialae Country Club in 1990 when it was called the Hawaiian Open. Kua, a Kamehameha Schools graduate, is following in Ishii's soft-spike prints. He won the Mänoa Cup this summer — the first left-hander in 30 years — and also captured the Barber's Point Invitational.
But a Sony tee time is the most valuable prize there is for a Hawai'i golfer. It means more than history and cold hard cash. Kua seized the lone amateur slot, an exemption provided by tournament benefactor Friends of Hawai'i Charities, by shooting a 5-under-par 67 at Waialae.
The University of Hawai'i sophomore beat Mike Kawate, a 52-year-old UH researcher, by two shots. None of the other 10 golfers broke par.
"I guess this goes above Mänoa Cup now," Kua said. "Mänoa Cup is special, legendary. It got me here. But this is a little bigger."
His success in a series of pressure-filled matches the past two years at Mänoa Cup stood the test of time yesterday. Kua broke away early with a birdie-birdie-par-eagle start, hitting his second shot to four feet on the 500-yard par-5 fourth. He played the next 12 holes in 1-over, missing a seven-foot birdie putt on the 16th minutes after his caddie, Travis Toyama, told him where Kawate stood — one back.
The man who studies pesticides in the UH Agriculture Department — "I've got to work to support my (golf) habit" — was nearly flawless. Kawate, second to Ryan Perez in this year's Amatour Hawai'i Player of the Year race, was 3-under after 14 holes. He three-putted No. 15 for his only bogey and closed with birdie on the final hole after blasting from the bunker to three feet.
Kua and Toyama, who lost to Lorens Chan in a playoff at last year's amateur qualifier, followed the Mid-Pacific Country Club member closely from a group back. Kua rose to Kawate's challenge.
On the 17th, Kua hit a wedge to three feet and converted the birdie to go up two shots as Kawate stood in the 18th fairway.
"I was practicing the last two days trying to set the pace and get deep early," Kua recalled. "It paid off today, I was able to do it. I kind of tapered off in the middle, I was really scrambling it put a lot of stress on my game. But those two good shots at 16 and 17 calmed me down.
"I had short birdie putts, I missed the one at 16 but made 17. I knew the last hole was a decent birdie hole. I wanted to go into 18 knowing I had somewhat of a cushion, so the birdie on 17 was huge."
Like Kawate, Kua put his second shot on the final hole (509-yard par-5) in the greenside bunker. He also blasted out to three feet and converted again to clinch.
"Mänoa Cup came into my mind a lot," Kua said. "I told Travis today was more nerve-wracking than the last day of Mänoa Cup. But knowing what it feels like and knowing that I've somewhat performed under that pressure it felt good coming in knowing I could do it again."
Now he is focused on finding the same magic that helped Tadd Fujikawa tie for 20th at the 2007 Sony after earning this exemption. First, he plans on placing a call to his uncle. "He has more knowledge than anybody else," Kua said.
The 12 amateurs earned their Sony opportunity by qualifying for the John A. Burns Challenge Cup team. The amateurs beat Hawai'i's pros for an unprecedented third straight year last month.
1, TJ Kua 33-34-67. 2, Mike Kawate 34-35-69. 3, Jonathan Ota 36-36-72. 4, (tie) Brandan Kop 34-39-73, Nainoa Calip 36-37-73. 6, (tie) Bradley Shigezawa 38-36-74, Lorens Chan 36-38-74, Ryan Perez 37-37-74. 9, (tie) Christian Akau 39-36-75, Matthew Ma 37-38-75. 11, David Saka 37-39-76. 12, Scott Ichimura 39-41-80.