When the hottest golfer in the Manoa Cup over the past two years meets the hottest golfer at this 102nd Manoa Cup in today’s championship only one thing is for sure.
A left-hander will win.
Defending champion TJ Kua won his 11th consecutive match yesterday, defeating Hunter Larson, 3 and 2, at Oahu Country Club. Kua, a University of Hawaii junior, has not lost a Cup match since falling to eventual champion Alex Ching on the 19th hole in the 2008 semifinal.
Larson, who just graduated from UH in Hawaiian Studies, was playing his first Manoa Cup. He and Kua are left-handed, as is David Fink, who continued his torrid pace by winning both his matches yesterday on the 14th hole.
Last year, Kua never trailed in becoming the first left-hander to win the state’s amateur match-play championship since Ernie Gonzales Jr. in 1979. Today, he could become the first to defend a Manoa Cup title since Brandan Kop, in 1997 and ’98. Ken Miyaoka was the last before that, in 1971 and ’72.
Only Fink stands in his way, and the Oregon State sophomore, whose game and frame have obviously grown in Corvallis, looms large over Kua’s scrawny 5-foot-9 figure.
"Me and David are great buddies, so I would just like it to go down to the wire," Kua said. " Just two buddies out there having fun. I’d like to see it close. Should be interesting. … I’m not expecting any doors to open tomorrow."
Larson opened no doors yesterday, but simply could not close any, with Kua again making every 4-, 5- and 6-footer he needed, after yet another slow start.
Kua trailed in every match this week, with the exception of his win over Alina Ching on Thursday. Colton Knedler was 2 up on the Kamehameha graduate from Lihue after three holes of their rainy morning quarterfinal yesterday. Kua won seven of the next nine, throwing four straight birdies at Knedler to start the back nine.
In the afternoon semifinal, ironically, it was a couple of lipouts that kick-started Kua’s killer putting.
The first came on a 15-foot birdie putt at the sixth, which gave Larson a halve. The second was Kua’s second putt on the next hole, which gave Larson his lone lead.
At that point, Kua was actually encouraged.
"They (the lipouts) actually felt good for once because I wasn’t putting too well in the beginning," Kua said. "But those touched the hole. I knew I was getting closer and it would just be a few holes before they started falling."
He never missed another meaningful putt. Kua won three of the next four holes with par, getting up and down on the ninth. He chipped within 2 feet to win the 10th with birdie.
A 5-footer at No. 12 to keep his lead at 3 up rolled around and in. After Larson left his eagle chip on the lip at the next hole, Kua matched him by holing another 5-footer. Larson missed a 6-foot birdie putt that would have cut his deficit to two on the 14th.
"If I’d made that putt it would have been huge," said Larson, a 2006 Kealakehe graduate. "But right when I hit it the wind gusted and the thing went 2 inches left. That was tough."
They parred the 15th to dormie the match and Kua won it with – what else – a 4-foot par putt to tie the next hole.
"He’s just solid, not fazed," Larson said. "Seems like every time you do something to put pressure on him he tends to respond. It’s tough when every one of their 6- and 7-footers are going in and yours aren’t. I don’t expect him to miss a putt. I had to play my game to make birdies."
Larson, now fluent in Hawaiian and focusing on a pro golf career, trained for his first Cup over the last seven months after basically quitting the game in college. That and some serious conditioning got him through five tight matches. He went at least 17 holes in every previous round and pulled through without pulling his driver out of the bag.
In Monday’s qualifier, he shot a career-best 69 despite hitting it just three times. One drive went in the water and another just missed OB. He has been "scraping" 4-iron off the tee since.
Yesterday morning, Larson won the 16th and 17th to beat four-time Big Island Interscholastic Federation champ Sean Maekawa, 1 up.
"To me that was big because he was my Big Island rival from back in the day," Larson said. "To beat, first, Henry Park, and Sean … everyday was like the biggest day of my golfing career."
Today’s 36-hole championship starts at 7 a.m., with the second 18 beginning at 11:30 a.m. Kua is trying to figure out why he is still playing.
"I never trailed last year; that’s why it’s interesting to me that I was able to get back in the finals," he said. "It’s been kind of an opposite week. But match play goes any way possible. That’s the beauty of it."