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UH's Saka earns amateur exemption for Sony Open

By Ann Miller


A week later, David Saka seized the day and a rare opportunity at Waialae Country Club.

Saka, a University of Hawaii freshman yet to swing a club in a collegiate tournament because of injury, fired a 3-under-par 69 yesterday to win the amateur exemption for next month's Sony Open in Hawaii.

He was two shots better than three juniors: UH teammate TJ Kua, who qualified last year; 'Iolani's Lorens Chan, who qualified the year before; and Kamehameha-Maui's Aaron Kunitomo, who plays Sunday in the inaugural Hyundai Tournament of Champions Pro-Celebrity-Junior Golf Shootout at Kapalua.

Saka's next competitive swing will be Jan. 13, in the opening round of the first full-field event of the 2011 PGA Tour season.

"I hope I don't shank it," the soft-spoken Saka said, shaking his head.

He shanked nothing yesterday, in a qualifier postponed a week. Waialae was closed last Monday after 6 inches of rain the previous weekend. Yesterday's conditions were all but ideal, if a little long. With the course saturated and roll at a minimum, tees were moved up and players could lift, clean and place their golf balls. After an early 5-minute downpour, it stayed dry.

Saka birdied all the par 5s -- reaching Nos. 4 and 18 in two. He was 4 under after a 5-foot birdie putt at the 12th, which was the longest putt he made. He bogeyed Nos. 15 and 17 before closing with birdie.

Tadd Fujikawa, who graduated from Moanalua a year ahead of Saka, used this exemption four years ago to finish 20th at the Sony. He was the youngest in 50 years to make a tour cut.

"I'm not as emotional as Tadd when I'm playing," Saka said. "That was pretty fun to watch."

Saka, low amateur at the Kona and Maui opens last year, finished an hour ahead of the last group yesterday. That final group was made up of three high school juniors so talented that University of San Diego coach Tim Mickelson flew over to watch the John A. Burns Challenge Cup last month. The Challenge is a Ryder Cup-style annual competition between Hawaii pros and amateurs. The 12 amateurs who qualify for Burns are eligible to play off for the Sony amateur exemption.

Chan, the 2009 state high school champion, was one of the juniors. Campbell's Rudy Cabalar Jr., the reigning state high school champ, was another. The last was Kunitomo, who had the last shot at Saka.

Kunitomo needed to sink a wedge shot for eagle to tie on the 445-yard final hole.

After this summer, no one would have put it past him. He overcame a five-shot final-round deficit with a chip-in for eagle to get into Junior Worlds, and birdied the 18th, 19th and 20th holes to upset the third seed at the U.S. Junior Amateur.

Yesterday, he came up 7 feet short, then missed the birdie putt. It captured his day perfectly. He hit 16 greens in regulation, but made just one putt outside 5 feet and three-putted for his only bogey.

"These greens, they break differently," said Kunitomo, a 2009 Hawaii State Junior Golf Association Player of the Year. "The grain goes against the slope. I couldn't get anything going, couldn't get any touch."

Chan's charge on his home course came too late. He was 4 feet short of a hole-in-one at the 16th and birdied the final hole, but it was too little after a front nine of errant iron shots.

Chan shot 72-75 to miss the cut at the 2009 Sony while a UCLA golf coach followed his every move. He offered Saka some advice.

"Really take it in," Chan said. "This is not really once-in-a-lifetime, but it kinda is. You're playing against PGA pros, the best players in the world, and I know they have a good field this year. I don't know if the rain is going to go away, but the rough is going to get longer and longer, so just have fun.

"(Sixteen-year-old) Jordan Spieth made a PGA cut this year, so it's possible, but most important is just to have fun. You're playing on your own island, so have fun and take the whole moment in."

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