Top college golfers gather at Mauna Lani UH's Matsuoka gets Ho'olaule'a award
By Bill Kwon
The pros have left, now the best collegiate golfers and teams arrive for the Mauna Lani Invitational hosted by University of Hawai'i-Hilo, and you can't blame Vulcan coach Earl Tamiya for being excited about the field, which includes Peter Uihlein, top-ranked player in the GolfWeek/Sagarin poll and his Oklahoma State team, which is No. 1 in the nation.
"This is our 20th and it's big," says Tamiya, who along with the late Dennis Rose, then Waikoloa Resort's director of golf, put together the idea of inviting the best college teams to enjoy the salubrious weather of the Big Island's Kona Coast back in 1990.
"You'll see a lot of players who will be on the (PGA) tour someday just as the guys now on the tour who played here," Tamiya said. Like Tiger Woods, Tamiya likes to remind people. Also, Georgia Tech's Matt Kuchar and reigning British Open champion Stewart Cink, who were just here for the SBS Championship and the Sony Open in Hawai'i.
The event is by-invitation and you have to stand in line just to get on the waiting list. No wonder Georgia Tech's Bruce Heppler and Arizona State's Randy Lein keep bringing their teams back: Heppler, since he first took over as the Yellow Jackets' coach in 1995 and Lein, whose streak began in 1990 when he coached Southern California before going to ASU three years later and hasn't stopped.
"This is one tournament I look forward to the most all year," Lein said during a previous visit. Heppler, who also came here when he was at assistant coach at UNLV and Oklahoma State, likes bringing his team because it gives his players a chance to travel to a far-off location, play under different (read: windier) conditions and compete against golfers they don't usually face as an East Coast school.
Tamiya's pride and joy hasn't gone unnoticed. GolfWeek's Ron Balicki, a frequent Big Island visitor to the event, lists it as one of the best tournaments starting off the spring golf season. "Host Hawai'i-Hilo might be a Division II school, but head coach Earl Tamiya has a knack of attracting some of the nation's top DI teams year in and year out," he wrote.
If the recent Sony Open had its best field ever — topping that of even the winners-only SBS Championship at Kapalua the week before — this year's UH-Hilo's 54-hole intercollegiate event, which will be played at Mauna Lani's North Course starting Wednesday, could lay the same "best-ever" claim in its 20-year history.
Not only is No. 1 Oklahoma State coming here, but also No. 2 Stanford and four other top-10 teams — TCU (No. 4), Florida State (No. 5), Arizona State (No. 7) and Washington (No. 8). UCLA, Texas, USC, Oregon State, Texas Tech and Georgia Tech — all in the top 25 — are also competing.
The individual field is equally impressive. Led by Uihlein, seven of the top 12 collegians, according to the GolfWeek/Sagarin rankings, are playing for medalist honors. Joining Uihlein are Oregon State's Diego Velasquez (4), Oklahoma State's Morgan Hoffmann (6), Texas Tech's Nils Floren (7), Texas' Cody Gribble (8), Stanford's Sihwan Kim (9), Florida State's Brooks Koepka (11) and UCLA's Pedro Figueiredo (12).
Uihlein, a sophomore for the Cowboys, is the poster boy and the most traveled of the bunch. Two weeks ago, he helped the United States successfully defend its title at the Copa de las Americas in Buenos Aires. Last year, he went 4-0 in his matches as Team USA beat Great Britain and Ireland in the 42nd Walker Cup in Ardmore, Pa. Teammate Hoffmann was also a member of the winning team in the biennial event, the amateurs' version of the Ryder Cup.
Besides the host Vulcans, University of Hawai'i-Manoa is also among the 22 teams in the field. It'll be interesting to see how TJ Kua, who played in the Sony Open, will stack up against some of the nation's best collegians.
KIM IN KRAFT
When the LPGA finally starts its 2010 season — I'm suffering withdrawal pains — it'll be great to see Michelle Wie back in action. And joining her in the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's first major of the year, will be former Big Island resident Kimberly Kim, a sophomore on the University of Denver women's golf team.
Kim, who lost in the finals of two USGA championships last year, will be playing in the Kraft Nabisco for the second time, and said she's pleasantly surprised in getting invited again.
"I'm excited. It's still a big deal," said Kim, who played in the Kraft Nabisco in 2007 a year after becoming the youngest champion of the U.S. Women's Amateur when she won it as a 14-year-old.
She was invited again in 2008 after leading the Americans to a victory in the Curtis Cup but didn't play because of an elbow problem.
"I didn't realize how big a tournament it was at the time, but now I realize it's one of the majors," said Kim, who missed the cut in her only appearance but hopes the third invite will be a charm.
Kim2, as she's known, was one of seven amateurs invited, including Jennifer Song, who beat her in the finals of the 2009 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links.
Bill Kwon can be reached at email@example.com.