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Freshman Kono is taking UCLA golf to another level


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POSTED: Friday, March 20, 2009

It came as no surprise that Stephanie Kono was out playing Royal Kunia on her third day home for a quick vacation between quarters at UCLA.

The shocking part was that it was her first time on the course.

A day after being named GolfWorld Player of the Week, the 2008 Punahou graduate enjoyed a relaxing round of golf as she gears up for the Bruins' stretch run beginning with the ASU Sun Devil tournament April 3.

With finals out of the way and spring quarter still a week off, Kono came home for a quick break, and decided to check out Kunia for the first time.

“;I think I shot 2 under,”; she said with some hesitation. “;Course is a nice course. No trouble anywhere.”;

Trouble isn't part of Kono's vocabulary. The UCLA freshman has wasted little time making her presence felt on the collegiate level, capturing her first title barely two months into the season at the Match Play Championships on Nov. 2.

She earned her second win, and fifth top-five finish in seven tournaments, at the UCF Challenge on March 10, earning her the GolfWorld award.

She entered the final round in 12th place, but skyrocketed up the leaderboard with a blistering 6-under 66, including four birdies over the final seven holes to slip past second-round leader Jessica Yadloczky to win the title by one.

“;It was good to win individually,”; Kono said. “;To also have the team win was fun.”;

That's all UCLA has been doing with Kono leading the way. The Bruins have won six of the seven tournaments they have competed in, and are ranked second by Golfweek magazine.

Kono, who leads the Bruins with a 71.4 scoring average and is 5 under par through 20 rounds this season, is ranked fourth individually. She's finished under par in half of those 20 rounds this year.

“;Although I'm a freshman, I've played against a lot of these girls in summer tournaments, and I think that helps a lot,”; Kono said.

Kono made her mark on a team expected to be really good after returning everyone from a year ago. Her teammates include Tiffany Joh, the reigning Pac-10 player of the year, who has won the U.S. Women's Amateur Publinx title twice, and Maria Jose Uribe, who has won the U.S. Women's Amateur and finished in 10th place at the U.S. Women's Open last year.

“;You don't really get to know them as well as when you're on the same team and practice with them every day,”; Kono said. “;I've really learned a lot from my teammates.

“;Your team is family in college and that's been the best part. I never thought I'd have so much fun with them.”;

Winning makes things even more enjoyable, and UCLA has done plenty of that. The Bruins are one win away from tying the most they've had in a single season.

“;And I think we're two wins away from setting the record for NCAAs,”; Kono said. “;It's one thing to win individually, but winning as a team is so exciting.”;

Kono, who also came home for winter break, is enjoying a week away before gearing up for what lies ahead. The Bruins only have the Arizona tournament before the Pac-10 championships begin at the end of April. The NCAA tournament is May 19, and UCLA will be one of the favorites to win it all.

“;We have four All-Americans on our team,”; Kono said. “;We just can't get ahead of ourselves.”;

The Bruins have a rich tradition in women's golf, dating to 1971, when the team claimed the school's first national title in a women's sport.

Success and location made Kono's decision to attend UCLA an easy one. She signed with the Bruins before her senior season of high school.

“;Honestly, I've always wanted to go to UCLA, ever since I visited in the fifth or sixth grade,”; Kono said. “;Everything about it is great and it's in L.A., where everything is glamorous.”;

Between spending 20 hours a week practicing and playing on various top-of-the-line courses and enjoying the privileges that come with being an athlete at an institution like UCLA, Kono has no complaints as she wraps up her first year on campus.

If anything, it's not having clean clothes whenever she wishes.

“;I've had to get used to doing my laundry,”; Kono joked. “;I try to do it at least once a week, but that doesn't always happen.”;