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Vet set helps young amateurs win

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    The amateurs whipped the pros for the fourth year in a row in the Gov. John A. Burns Challenge Cup. The winners are, counterclockwise starting from far left, Rudy Cabalar Jr., David Saka, Todd Rego, Phil Anamizu (nonplaying captain), Lorens Chan, TJ Kua, Brandan Kop, Seung Jae Maeng, Royden Heirakuji, Aaron Kunitomo, Matthew Ma and Zady Ari. Jonathan Ota is not in the photo.
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The makeup of the amateur team in the Gov. John A. Burns Challenge Cup has shifted considerably toward youth in recent years.

But the veterans are still getting in on the fun.

Boosted by the continued rise of local golf’s junior set, 12 of the state’s top amateurs completed their fourth straight victory over their professional counterparts in the 38th annual Ryder Cup-style event yesterday at Mid-Pacific Country Club.

By the time University of Hawaii junior TJ Kua halved his match with Shawn McCauley on the 18th hole, his teammates with the amateur team were already gathering for the ceremonial victory photo with the perpetual trophy.

The amateurs opened a three-point lead after Monday’s pairs matches, then won seven of yesterday’s 12 individual matches to finish with 16 1/2 points to 7 1/2 for the pros.

The outcome was sealed midway through the singles slate when Jonathan Ota, playing in his 19th Challenge Cup, closed out a 3-and-1 victory over Joe Phengsavath at No. 17.

Ota and Brandan Kop have been playing in the event longer than some of their current teammates have been alive, continuing to compete as the team’s average age plummeted.

"Before we were all about the same age, all in our 20s and 30s," Ota said of his early days playing in the event. "Now the majority is in high school. But they’re so talented.

"Before the young guys were the weak guys. Now they’re the strength of the team."

Even so, Ota certainly did his part over the two-day event by contributing three points to the team’s total.

On Monday, he teamed with Kua, a fellow Kauai product, to win four-ball and alternate-shot matches against Dave Eichelberger — a PGA and Champions Tour veteran — and Eddie Lee.

Ota then held off Phengsavath, a former teammate with the amateur squad, who playfully fell face-first on the 17th green when his birdie putt to extend the match died at the edge of the cup.

"It’s always an adventure," Ota said. "He’s always yelling and screaming. But always good fun."

Ota’s match became the clincher after the amateurs earned four points in the first five singles matches. Seung Jae Maeng and David Saka halved their matches and Aaron Kunitomo, Zady Ari and Todd Rego all won full points to push the total to 11 1/2.

Matt Pakkala earned the only full point for the pros with a 2 and 1 win over Royden Heirakuji.

Kop defeated Beau Yokomoto 4 and 3 to complete his 30th appearance in the tournament and marveled at the change in the demeanor of juniors now compared to his early days playing with the pros.

"They’re getting so good now that they’re not afraid," Kop said. "When we were young, it was different, you were kind of intimidated. These younger players, they’re not intimidated, so they can play against the local pros. That’s what pushed it over."

While pride and bragging rights represented the primary payoff this week, the 12 amateurs who qualified for the team by accumulating points in events throughout the year will next compete for a coveted spot in the Sony Open in Hawaii on Dec. 20 at Waialae Country Club.

Ota took that route to play in the Sony Open in 2002 and ’04. Kop qualified four times and said the opportunity represents a sizable incentive for the youngsters to develop their games. Tadd Fujikawa used the Burns Cup to earn a spot in the Sony Open before he turned pro.

Lorens Chan, an ‘Iolani junior who earned three points for the amateurs this week, made the Sony field in 2009 as a 14-year-old. Kua won the spot last year.

"It’s good for golf in Hawaii, because a lot of the junior golfers that’s what they’re practicing for," Kop said.

"There’s a couple of them doing it now, but all the PGA events should have something like this. … For the high school players, that’s their dream so they’re practicing harder because at the end of the rainbow you can qualify for the Cup and try to qualify for the Sony Open."

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