Jennie K.'s special in hearts of champions Pro Tour players from Hawaii
Holes in One
Prep champ Cabalar in Hickam Invitational field
Kim 12th at NCAAs
By Bill Kwon
Once more, with feeling.
No, I'm not talking about Kristina Merkle, who won the Jennie K. Wilson Invitational for the fourth time in the past five years, although she deserves all the accolades.
I'm referring to the feelings expressed by four previous Jennie K. champions — Bev Kim, Bobbi Kokx, Kari Williams and Brenda Rego — who made it a point of returning to the Mid-Pacific Country Club last week to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Hawai'i's most prestigious women's amateur golf tournament.
Williams came the farthest — from New York City — to take part in the festivities.
"I got an invite to come back for the 60th anniversary and was excited to come back. I haven't been here for a decade, so to return and see a lot of old, familiar faces and to be remembered by them was great," said Williams, who just completed her third season as women's golf coach at Columbia University.
"This week has really been fun. The golf hasn't been as good — living in Manhattan isn't very good for my golf game — but I had a great time. (Mid-Pac's) probably my favorite golf course on the planet," said Williams, who won the Jennie K. in 1994 when she was a senior on the University of Hawai'i women's golf team and again in 1999.
In terms of distance, coming from New York — where she lives at 125th and Broadway — doesn't seem as far as when she came from Wyoming to play here for UH, according to Williams. "I was recruited by George Seichi, who told me, 'If you commit, I'll give you a scholarship to come out here to play.' I asked my dad if I could go away to Hawai'i. And never looked back."
It has been quite a journey — Wyoming to Hawai'i to the Big Apple with a stop in California — for Williams, who lived here for 11 years after graduating from UH with a business degree. After a brief attempt at professional golf, Williams applied for the women's golf position at UH but was told she lacked coaching experience.
So she coached girls high school basketball and golf in Gilroy, Calif., yes, the Garlic Capital of the World. She then was hired as an assistant men's and women's golf coach by Columbia in 2007. "We won the Ivy (League) championship my first year there and I got promoted head women's coach the following year," said Williams, who also earned a master's degree at Columbia.
Recalling her two Jennie K. victories, Williams said the first one in 1994 was a kind of a surprise because she had to rally after shooting an opening-round 82. "It was exciting. I had a whirlwind couple of weeks — I had just made it to the NCAAs and was getting ready to graduate," said Williams, who captained the Wahine golf team for two years.
Her second victory meant a lot more. "It took me five more years to win another one. It meant more because I know how hard it is to win Jennie K.," said Williams, who finished runner-up in 1995 and 1996 to a couple of16-year-olds, Anna Umemura and Kathy Cho. Williams also finished third and fourth before finally winning again.
"I could tell you some Kari Williams stories," said Kokx, also a two-time Jennie K. champion. The two became fast friends, while working at Royal Hawaiian Country Club (now Luana Hills), Kokx as a pro after graduating from UH and Williams as an accountant.
"Good or bad, Kari's always smiling," said Kokx, former UH Wahine golfer and coach and now a teacher at Kīhei Elementary School. "She makes (shooting) 80 look good. She's a great friend."
Like Williams, Kokx decided to play this year because of the event's 60th anniversary.
"They invited us to the Champions Dinner, which was exciting," said Kokx, who came to Hawai'i from Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1982 to play for UH-Mānoa and didn't know much about Jennie K.'s history as the oldest continuous women's golf tournament in Hawai'i. She won the Jennie K. in 1984 in her first try. But her second victory 16 years later became more meaningful, she said, because she finally realized its historical significance in local golf. And winning the 2000 Jennie K. in its 50th anniversary and in her first tournament after regaining her amateur status made it all the more special, Kokx said.
"I love playing Mid-Pac. The members are great and the course is always in championship condition and you have to play your best to win. But trying to compete against the kids is difficult," said Kokx, 46. She ought to know. As the defending champion in 2001, Kokx watched in awe as 11-year-old Michelle Wie become the Jennie K.'s youngest champion — a record that still stands.
Kim grew up knowing all about the history of the Jennie K., first playing in the event in her teens as Beverly Kong. Then she went off to college and didn't have much time for competitive golf after getting married and raising two kids. Determined to play Jennie K. again, she had husband Randy baby-sit them back in Kaua'i and won the Jennie K. in 1981. "It's something I wanted to win since I was a sophomore in high school," Kim said after her victory.
Inducted into the Hawai'i Golf Hall of Fame in 2003, Kim has won a tournament in five different decades since her first victory as a 15-year-old in 1961. But her first Jennie K. win was really special, she said, because it put her in the same company with so many of her role models, citing Joan Damon, Ramona McGuire and Billie Beamer. "They were special women to me and to be part of that group is special," said Kim, now a grandmother and playing in A-Flight.
"Oh, I'll play again next year. Right now I feel like hibernating," said Kim, who enjoyed the week despite shooting "93-93 for the first time in my life."
Especially the company, which included 1976 Jennie K. champion Rego, now a pro at Wailea Old Blue on Maui. "Bev was my teacher at Leilehua," said Rego, who caddied for Kokx. "We used to practice golf together after school at Mililani."
History and tradition. It's what the Jennie K. is all about.
Bill Kwon can be reached at email@example.com.