Hawaii’s State Amateur Championship is up for grabs beginning today at Pearl Country Club. Sunday’s winner also earns an opportunity at one of the most coveted slots in local golf — the amateur exemption for the Sony Open in Hawaii that catapulted Tadd Fujikawa to fame a few years ago.
That perk is again threatened, even before the State Am starts without a defending champion.
University of Hawaii junior TJ Kua will be with the Rainbows on the mainland this weekend and is not able to defend at Pearl. That leaves ‘Iolani junior Lorens Chan as the most recent champion in the field. Chan became the youngest state amateur winner and set the tournament scoring record at Pearl simultaneously in 2009. In a rain-shortened 54-hole event, he shot 10-under-par 206 and won by eight shots, at the age of 14.
No one has done better since the event moved to Aiea in 1987 (with one stop at Kapolei in 1995), and the tournament usually runs four days.
It started in 1928 at Waialae Country Club. For all the years it was there only the late Chris Santangelo, who worked at Waialae, could get to double figures under par. He won the 1983 title at 13 under.
That was about when the amateur exemption into the then-Hawaiian Open became reality. It goes to the member of the Gov. John A. Burns Challenge Cup amateur team who wins a one-day playoff at Waialae Country Club each December.
UH freshman David Saka, who earned it for this year’s Sony, called it the "opportunity of a lifetime" in a heartfelt letter to the editor of this newspaper after the tournament ended.
The 12-golfer Challenge Cup team is made up of the state’s top amateurs at designated tournaments during the year. They play the 12 top pros in the Cup, usually scheduled around Thanksgiving. To get into the one-day Sony qualifier, the amateur must play in the Cup.
The State Amateur champ earns the first slot on this year’s Challenge Cup team.
The Manoa Cup (state match play) champ also qualifies automatically, as does any amateur that wins an open event. The rest of the 12 slots are filled by the top point-getters at select events, with the committee also allowed an at-large choice.
Exemptions are at a premium for Sony, which offers most of its invitations to Japanese pros. The amateur slot has been precarious for longer than most of its prospective qualifiers have been around. With the help of some loyal supporters, positive national media coverage and the buzz it created with the likes of Fujikawa’s charge into the top 20 in 2007, it has hung on.
This school year, Oregon State became the first college to file a formal complaint with the NCAA about UH’s participation at the Burns Challenge Cup. It is one of the mainland colleges that has not allowed its players to compete because of an NCAA rule that prevents golfers from playing outside team competitions except during vacation periods.
Former state high school champs Alex Ching and Sean Maekawa are among those who have not been allowed to play by their mainland coaches.
UH always interpreted the vacation period as when its players were not in season, either training or competing. NCAA golfers are allowed 144 days in a season. UH’s countdown begins the second week of school, ends before Thanksgiving and resumes after Christmas break.
After Oregon State’s complaint, NCAA compliance ruled that schools could only compete in an outside team format when classes were out, unless the team event is granted an exemption.
Last year, about a third of the golfers who initially qualified for the Burns were in college. The Rainbows who participated were Kua and Saka, and when the NCAA interpretation came down, UH self-reported its violation. Kua and Saka had to sit out one competitive day — a dual match against Hawaii-Hilo — as a penalty.
The Burns Cup could change its dates, to Christmas break or summer, to allow collegiate players in the future. It could also try to get an exemption. Both solutions are problematic, especially for this year. Exemptions take time. The points calendar would have to be reconfigured and pros’ schedules taken into consideration. Colleges are on break at different times.
"Obviously I’d like them to move the time because it’s a tremendous opportunity for all college players, not just mine," UH coach Ronn Miyashiro said. "I’m not just thinking of our players. All college kids get hurt, here and on the mainland."
Until it’s figured out, collegiate players are out, which hurts the quality and adds fuel to the fire of those who would like to end the amateur exemption.
"It’s crazy to me," said former Rainbow Warrior Ryan Perez, the 2004 Manoa Cup champ who has competed in the Burns and is now caddying for Fujikawa on the NGA Hooters Tour. "That slot gives kids around there, and everybody who qualifies, the experience of a lifetime. You work so hard all year for the Governor’s Cup and you know you have that Sony Open bid if you can just get on the list and play well for that one 18 holes. I tried my hardest to do it. It’s awesome, great for the state."
Golfers tee off at Pearl starting at 11:20 a.m. today (first and 10th tees), Saturday and Sunday, and 6:53 a.m. tomorrow. The field will be cut to the top 40 and ties after the second round.