Friday, November 27, 2015         

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Sakamoto's putter comes alive for title

By Ann Miller


Nicole Sakamoto's putting drought came to a screeching halt when the rain let up in Friday's State Women's Match Play Championship final. Cyd Okino could only watch as Sakamoto surged to a successful title defense.

Sakamoto, a Kalani High graduate about to start her senior season at James Madison, threw five birdies at Okino in a six-hole span to win the championship, 2 and 1.

The two graduates of Casey Nakama's Junior Development Program played Oahu Country Club in a best-ball 9 under par through the 17 holes. They combined for only three bogeys and missed just three greens in regulation, despite a heavy rain that made for ugly conditions the first hour-plus.

Okino, a Punahou graduate headed to the University of Washington, won the first hole with a two-putt birdie. Sakamoto squared the match with eagle on the next, but two three-putts left Okino 1 up after eight holes.

Sakamoto didn't win the ninth hole, but her 6-foot birdie putt might have won her the match.

"It was the first meaningful putt I'd made since the (Wednesday) qualifying round," said Sakamoto, who has focused on her short game this summer. "I got confidence in my putter. I was kind of tentative before, but after I made a putt it was OK."

Okino matched that birdie, but could not keep up with Sakamoto's torrid pace on the back nine.

The golfer with JMU's lowest career scoring average drained birdie putts from 10 feet on the 10th and inside 3 feet on the next two holes.

Okino, who had six one-putt greens and a hole-out from the fairway in a 3-and-2 semifinal victory over Kristina Merkle, missed momentum-busting birdie putts inside 10 feet each time.

"I think I just let it all out yesterday," Okino said, grinning. "I didn't have much today."

Both parred the treacherous 13th. They reverted to final form on the 14th. Sakamoto slipped in a 10-footer for birdie to go 3 up as Okino's gifted short game let her down again.

Okino became this tournament's youngest champion when she won in 2005 at age 11 (Allisen Corpuz broke her record by two months in 2009). Three years later, soon after her U.S. Women's Open debut, Okino defeated Sakamoto in the final for her second title.

She wasn't about to go away Friday, particularly against someone she has known half her life. Okino willed in an 8-footer to win the 15th.

"You worry she's just going to stick every hole," Sakamoto said. "That every time she hits the ball, it's going to be close."

But a long birdie putt lipped out for Okino on the 16th to dormie the match and she could not conjure up a miracle on the next hole to prolong it.

Sakamoto's surge was too much. Her self-described "posse" of high school friends got their wish: They threw her in the pool when it was over, celebrating the fifth player in the 36-year history of this tournament to repeat.

Okino could not be too disappointed. Since she shot 81 at the U.S. Junior Girls qualifier two months ago she has tried to "just calm down and start practicing." She tweaked her swing and took up every offer to play new courses before she heads to UW. The three-time Hawaii State Open Women's champion has her game back to where it needs to be for her college debut.

"Before, I was hitting my shots all over the place," Okino said. "Now I'm more consistent and I'll hit more greens in regulation. Even my tee shots, they were pretty crooked before and now it's straightened out. The practice helped, a lot. …I feel like I got confidence."

Sakamoto's goal in her senior season is to go to regionals again, this time with her team. She is scheduled to graduate in May with a major in sports management and a minor in business. Then, she plans to turn pro.

But first, she has another title to defend. The State Stroke Play Championship begins Tuesday at Mid-Pacific Country Club. Sakamoto and Okino will both be there, in a small field that also includes Corpuz, Kelli Oride, Michelle Condry and 2009 champion Kacie Komoto.

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