DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Stephanie Kono earned a spot in the U.S. Women's Open by winning a qualifying tournament at Ko Olina on Tuesday.
Kono keeping busy this summer
Punahou's other golf phenom will play in seven tournaments over the next two months
If experience is indeed the greatest teacher, Stephanie Kono is in for a summer of higher education on golf courses across the country.
At 16, Kono has already benefited from the numerous lessons behind her, and she'll ramp up her schooling with a summer itinerary that includes some of the year's top amateur events as well as her first major championship.
"I think experience is really what makes you a better player," Kono said recently. "I think a lot of people don't realize that the more experience you have, it really is easier to play better."
Kono will spend close to two months on the mainland, playing seven tournaments over that span, beginning with the U.S Women's Amateur Public Links Championship, which opens Tuesday in Pueblo, Colo.
She'll then head to Rhode Island next week to play in the U.S Women's Open, her first opportunity to tee it up with professionals.
She also plans to play in a few more junior events on the mainland, including the U.S. Girls Junior Championship, and the U.S Women's Amateur.
Kono earned exemptions to the top amateur events -- and checked off a major goal on her summer to-do list -- by winning last week's U.S. Open sectional qualifier at Ko Olina Golf Club.
The six-stroke victory put her in position to become the second of local golf coach Kevin Ralbovsky's students to play in a U.S. Open, joining Moanalua's Tadd Fujikawa, who spent two days last week playing with the world's best at Winged Foot.
"After he made it I was even more inspired to make it," Kono said of Fujikawa, 15. "We're really close, he's the closest thing to a brother that I have."
Playing in a U.S. Open represents a significant landmark in Kono's already decorated playing career.
Kono started taking lessons with Ralbovsky In November 2000 and became the youngest winner of the HSWGA Match Play Championship the following summer at age 11. She soon added two state stroke-play championships and the 2003 Jennie K. Wilson Invitational title.
"At first she was a very typical junior golfer and didn't stand out in any one area that made me think she was going to be a special player," Ralbovsky said.
"We had a lot of things we needed to fix with her technically and she was able to do it very fast. That's when I knew she was different. And when I watched her play, I realized she has a tremendous instinct for the game that you can't teach, she was born with it."
Since entering high school, the Punahou standout has won two Interscholastic League of Honolulu crowns and she captured the state title this spring, shooting a tournament-record 64 in the opening round.
Kono has long been able to rely on her ball-striking as a strength, and with each tournament she's been able to refine her short game as well.
"She's learning more shots and it's like having more tools in your toolbox," Ralbovsky said. "You have to learn multiple ways of how to chip the ball or pitch the ball because you have so many different situations around the green. Her repertoire of shots has improved a lot in the past year."
After excelling on the local level, Kono scored a breakthrough nationally last summer by winning the Westfield Junior PGA Championship, which she followed with a victory at Harder German Junior Masters.
Leading for much of the Junior PGA Championship, Kono overcame some rough holes to finish with a 1-over-par 72 and managed to hang on to win her first national championship while absorbing another vital lesson.
"Since then I've always known I can start out bad, but I can always come back," she said.
"I've played in other tournaments ... and I kind of started out shaky, but I know I can put it back together. That was the first time I experienced it, at Westfield, and that really boosted my confidence."
Said Ralbovsky: "It's one thing to play well, but there's an art to knowing how to win as well. You have to be able to do it and be able to step it up at different levels. To win those two tournaments last year, she knew she could play against the top juniors in the world. She knew she was that caliber, and from there now we take it one more level."
Kono will be part of a sizable group of teenagers descending upon Newport Country Club next week, including fellow Punahou student and national sensation Michelle Wie, Honolulu's Ayaka Kaneko and former Hilo resident Kimberly Kim.
A year behind Wie in school, Kono said they cross paths occasionally on campus but don't talk golf much. Kono's young career has followed a more conventional route compared to Wie's trailblazing endeavors that have put her in the national spotlight, and she appreciates the benefits of Wie's pursuits.
"What she's doing is really good because it brings a lot of attention to women's golf and I think that helps everybody in general," she said.
Notes: Kono won't defend her Westfield title since the tournament dates conflict with the U.S. Women's Amateur. She'll be back in school by the time the German Junior Masters starts, keeping her from returning to defend her crown there. ... Two Hawaii players have exemptions into this week's WAPL. Mari Chun earns another berth as a quarterfinalist in last year's tournament and Amanda Wilson is exempt as a qualifier for the 2004 U.S. Women's Open. Kim, Kelly Nakashima and Cyd Okino have also qualified for the event.