RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Stephanie Kono and caddy Kevin Ralbovsky talked as Kono waited to tee off on the ninth hole at Ko Olina yesterday.
Kono gets into Women's Open
The Punahou student wins the sectional at Ko Olina
By grinding through yesterday's U.S. Women's Open sectional qualifier, Stephanie Kono secured a spot in her first major championship while also saving herself a few more anxiety-filled rounds and a hectic night of travel.
Kono shot a 5-over-par 149 to win the 36-hole qualifier at Ko Olina Golf Club, earning a spot in the U.S. Women's Open, set for June 29 to July 2 at Newport Country Club in Newport, R.I.
The victory also means she's exempt for the other USGA amateur events she would have needed to qualify for this summer, including the U.S. Women's Amateur and U.S. Girls championships.
"That's a relief, or else I would have had to go to San Francisco tonight to do the USGA Girls qualifying," Kono said after surviving two tours of a breezy Ko Olina course. "Any qualifying is just
nerve-wracking, so you want to do as few as possible."
Kono, who won the Interscholastic League of Honolulu and HHSAA championships as a Punahou sophomore this spring, earned the berth in her fourth attempt to qualify for the Open. She advanced to a sectional in her first try three years ago and didn't make it out of local qualifying the past two years.
"I can't believe that I'm actually going," she said. "This is what I've always wanted to qualify for and it feels really good to set a goal and meet my expectations."
Instead of having to hustle to the airport last night, Kono will be able to relax at home until Friday and will play in the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links starting June 20 in Pueblo, Colo., prior to the U.S. Open.
Kono carded a 2-over 74 in yesterday's morning round to take a five-stroke lead over Kauai's Miki Ueoka into the afternoon session.
Ueoka matched Kono for much of the second round and twice closed to within two shots of the lead on No. 10, and pulled within three with a birdie on No. 17. But a triple-bogey on the 18th ended her hopes of qualifying in her first sectional as she closed at 155.
"I just tried to be more aggressive on my shots and my putts and give myself more opportunities," Ueoka said. "There was no doubt in my mind she was going to play well the second round, so I just had to play my game.
"I knew I had to make something happen and I just kind of played steady, which is OK, but it wasn't going to catch her."
Dawn Kaneshiro of Lahaina finished third at 158 and Lori Planos of Kapalua came in fourth at 159.
Kono and Ueoka both shot 74 to share top honors at the local qualifier on May 18 at Ko Olina, and led the field again in the sectional.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Stephanie Kono putts on the second green during the U.S. Open women's qualifier at Ko Olina Resort.
Kono and Ueoka were both 2-over on the front nine. Kono then made things a bit more interesting by pulling her drive off the 10th tee out of bounds, threatening the homes along the right side of the fairway.
"I don't know what happened," Kono said. "I've never hit a drive like that on that hole."
After playing a provisional ball and sticking her approach, Kono's putt for bogey slid by the hole.
It looked like Kono might slip even more when she went into the bunker on the par-3 12th. But after blasting out of the sand to within 12 feet, she got a tricky downhill putt to catch the lip of the cup and drop in to save par.
"When I made that putt, I just had a feeling everything would be all right. That really turned it around," she said. "I felt confident again and I started hitting a lot of good shots."
Kono played the remaining six holes at 1 under, dropping another 10-foot birdie putt on No. 14.
"She hung in real well," said Kevin Ralbovsky, Kono's coach. "With the wind conditions and on the second 18, the pace of play really slowed down, so it threw her off her rhythm and she got into a stretch where she wasn't swinging with the right timing. She didn't get flustered, she stayed patient and she was able to right the ship."
Although Kono avoided a late-night flight to the mainland, Ralbovsky was headed to New York to caddy for Tadd Fujikawa at the U.S. Open, which opens tomorrow at Winged Foot.
"I'm really proud of them both," Ralbovsky said. "They really pay the price. They look at practice as training and they're training seven days a week for this kind of thing right here."
Notes: Honolulu's Michelle Wie has accepted an exemption to the year's third major championship. ... Kimberly Kim, formerly of Hilo, qualified for the Open by finishing tied for seventh at the sectional qualifier in West Bloomfield, Mich., on June 5. Ayaka Kaneko of Honolulu also made the field by tying for 19th in the Baltimore, Md., qualifier on Monday.