JENNIE K. WILSON INVITATIONAL
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Golfers Anna Jang, left, and Kristina Merkle, obscured, threw winner Xyra Suyetsugu and caddie Corie Hou, middle, in the pool.
Suyetsugu stops 3-peat
Succumbing to pressure is impossible when you're oblivious to the score.
Xyra Suyetsugu played a blissful round of golf on a challenging final day of the 58th Jennie K. Wilson Invitational, edging two-time defending champion Kristina Merkle by a stroke with a 1-over 73 (1-under 215 overall) at Mid-Pacific Country Club.
A fact that Suyetsugu discovered, well, right before she turned in her scorecard.
Thanks to her protective caddie, the University of Hawaii senior only figured out what was at stake while she watched Merkle meticulously study a 5-foot putt for birdie on 18 that would have forced a playoff and a chance for a three-peat in Lanikai.
"I knew we were neck and neck," said Suyetsugu, a first-team All-Western Athletic Conference selection, who finished tied for 11th at the league championships. "I wasn't too sure where I stood, if I was ahead or not (to that point)."
After Suyetsugu calmly putted a 25-foot fringe ball within 6 inches for a safe par to end her round, Merkle's tying putt meandered just to the right, and she turned away in disappointment while a surprised Suyetsugu accepted handshakes and hugs.
Her UH golf teammate and first-time caddie, Corie Hou, offered the unique strategy thought up from playing alongside the senior for two seasons.
"I kind of know her thought process and what gets her nervous or anxious," said Hou, a sophomore from Sydney, Australia. "So, when we made the turn the scoreboard was up there and I said, 'Don't look at it.' She was trying to take a sneak peak, but I told her, 'If you look at the scoreboard, I'm going to have to slap you, and you're going to have to carry your bag.'"
Hou wouldn't let her look at the large board as they approached the 18th green, either. It displayed Suyetsugu clinging to a one-stroke lead.
Despite the threats, the help was greatly appreciated from the 2004 Roosevelt graduate, who elected to walk the course.
"(Corie) kept me composed," Suyetsugu said. "I wasn't really thinking about shots. She told me, think out loud, tell me everything you're thinking about.' Because if thinking to myself, it confuses things. She was a huge help."
Merkle, a Moanalua High junior and newly-minted HHSAA girls champion, ran away with the field last year to win by 13 strokes. She carried a one-shot edge entering the final round. She and Suyetsugu -- last year's third place finisher -- earned separation from the rest of the field by maintaining pars on a day of difficult pin placements.
Suyetsugu led by two strokes going into the par-5 No. 16, but couldn't capitalize with a birdie despite getting on the green in two shots. Merkle, meanwhile, chipped from the rough and nailed a twisting 5-footer for birdie to pull back within one.
"I was just trying to catch up and play my game," Merkle said. "It's really heartbreaking, but I'm really happy that Xyra won, too."
Suyetsugu came out aggressive (with some encouragement from Hou) with her driver on the 297-yard 17th, a hole that had given her trouble in the past. She crushed the ball 250 yards down the middle and made a safe par again while Merkle worked for a clutch 7-foot save, maintaining the one-stroke margin entering the final hole.
The momentum swung on 13, when Suyetsugu blasted her drive straight, while Merkle strayed into the rough. The UH senior made up a stroke to pull even, and moved ahead two when Merkle made consecutive bogeys on 14 and 15.
"It was a lot tougher, they tucked the pins behind the bunkers and the corners and stuff," Merkle said. "But, it's a really nice golf course. I had fun. Yeah, I'm gonna be back. Definitely gonna be back."
It was Suyetsugu's first victory since August, when she won the Hawaii State Women's Stroke Play Championship. Merkle had been coming off a clutch performance -- a birdie on the final hole -- to win the HHSAA girls individual championship by a stroke.
Kalani senior Nicole Sakamoto shot a solid 73 to move into third place at 220, ahead of Punahou junior Anna Jang at 222.