JENNIE K. WILSON INVITATIONAL
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Two-time defending champion Kristina Merkle, left, leads the Jennie K. Wilson Invitational going into today's final round.
Merkle in position for Jennie K. 3-peat
Kristina Merkle is primed and ready for a three-peat at the prestigious 58th Jennie K. Wilson Invitational.
The two-time defending champion and Moanalua High junior carried a one-stroke lead over Xyra Suyetsugu after shooting a 3-under 69 (3-under 141 overall) going into today's final round at Mid-Pacific Country Club.
Merkle, who claimed the Oahu Interscholastic Association and HHSAA girls individual championships in the past three weeks, maintained her even-par first-round score through the turn yesterday, then exploded on her back nine with four birdies against a bogey on the final hole.
"It would mean a lot to my mom (Jade), because she wanted this for a Mother's Day gift," said the yellow-clad Merkle, whose similarly garbed parents walked the course with her. "She wants it every year, every Mother's Day. But it would mean a lot to me because this is a really big event for women and I get to play some really good players out here. It means a lot to me if I could do that."
Merkle torched the field last year to win by 13 strokes in the three-round tournament.
She would have more breathing room this time around if not for the lights-out putting of Suyetsugu, a University of Hawaii senior, who just wrapped up her Rainbow Wahine eligibility. The 2004 Roosevelt graduate strung together five straight birdies from Nos. 2 to 6 to go from 3 over overall to within a stroke at 2 under.
She even had a 3-foot eagle opportunity at the difficult No. 5, but couldn't get the putt to drop. Only afterward did she realize she still converted for birdie, and not par; somewhere along the line she lost count.
"I was just in the zone," Suyetsugu said. "My caddie (UH teammate Corie Hou) kind of woke me up because I was putting bad on the front. I had a couple of three-putts. She told me I need to hit the back of the cup -- and I started just draining all of them."
Her competition saw it as a positive sign that multiple players were executing well, even as Merkle's lead dwindled.
"I was happy for her, you know," Merkle said. "I mean, of course I want to come out here and win. But I also want my opponents to do good as well."
Punahou junior Anna Jang -- this year's HHSAA individual runner-up and 2007 champion -- led the field after posting a 71 in Friday's opening round but struggled on yesterday's back nine (she teed of at No. 10) to fall back to 2 over for the tournament at the turn.
Jang kept herself in contention by making a birdie and eight pars on her back nine, including two difficult saves on Nos. 1 and 2, for a 74 to stay within striking distance at 1-over 145 for the event.
"When I putted those balls in, I was like, 'Oh, OK, it's coming,' and I got momentum going," Jang said. "It was nice, a good start (to the back nine)."
She contrasted the course's feel to that of the 50th Mid-Pacific Open, which she and Stephanie Kono played in as the first women to enter last month. But the greens were much faster then, and driving from the forward tees yesterday lent a different feel to the fairways, as 100-yard iron approach shots became crucial.
Jang and Merkle were committed to improving their irons after they finished their rounds, while Suyetsugu didn't want to mess with whatever was working.
After her round Friday, Merkle and her parents went to Navy Marine Golf Club to work on her driving. It paid dividends, as she consistently smacked the ball around 300 yards and had little trouble finding the fairways in Round 2. Her only second-half mistake was misfiring on a chip in tall grass on No. 9, leading to a bogey to close her round.
"I gotta go work on my irons and a couple of wedge shots, but I need to stay consistent tomorrow and keep my head on, and I should be fine," Merkle said.