Hawaii’s rich golf history and its precocious present collide again this weekend at the 61st annual Jennie K. Wilson Invitational. Mid-Pacific Country Club in May might be the only place you hear the names of "Aunty Jennie," Hawaii Golf Hall of Famers Jackie Yates, Jackie Pung, Joan Damon, Tura Nagatoshi and Bev Kim mentioned in the same breath as Kristina Merkle, Mari Chun, Stephanie Kono and Michelle Wie.
All but Jennie, wife of former mayor John H. Wilson and the tournament’s Hawaiian soul from its start to her death in 1962, have won the year’s first Hawaii women’s major.
JENNIE K. WILSON WOMEN’S INVITATIONAL
Merkle, who just finished her sophomore year at the University of Tulsa, has won it four times in the past five years. She, maybe more than any of the teens who have dominated here the past 25 years, has a sense of the Jennie K. magic.
"The best thing about the tournament is the rich tradition behind it," Merkle says. "There is so much tradition. The ladies there are such sweethearts. They always greet you with a smile on their face. They are so happy to have you play. … The whole feel of the tournament makes you want to play."
Cyd Okino, fresh off her fourth state high school team championship at Punahou, senses Mid-Pac’s magic moments, but has yet to feel what it is like to win.
She has played Jennie K. every year since she was 9 and never finished better than third. In the interim, she captured two state match play titles (the first at 11), three Hawaii State Open championships and played in the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open.
"When I was younger I just played (Jennie K.) to play," says Okino, who will golf for Washington in the fall. "As I got older it was more about wanting to prove to myself that I can do better every year. I’ve been wanting to win this ever since I got serious about golf. It’s not like I’ve played badly. I’ve played pretty well every time, but somebody else always plays better."
More often than not, it has been Merkle. This year that might not happen.
After a rugged spring season at Tulsa, where her swing developed a "lot of glitches," she probably won’t tee off tomorrow. Merkle wants to "focus on my swing and mechanics and get back to being consistent" with her father Lou, head pro at Walter Nagorski Golf Course, so she can be ready for the summer’s USGA qualifiers.
That leaves a wide-open field. Merkle’s huge void could be filled by Okino, who knows this could be her last Jennie K. for a while. State high school champ Eimi Koga is also entered, along with collegians Ka‘ili Britos and Hayley Young, 12-year-old Mariel Galdiano and a few carts full of 13-year-olds, including Allisen Corpuz, who was second here the past two years.
Two golfers from Japan are in the championship flight and there are even some adults, including MPCC women’s club champion Mira Han. She is older than Okino, Galdiano and Corpuz combined — and still relatively young. The six-flight field of 124 was filled by the end of March.
Merkle, who took her last final Monday, has these words of advice for anyone looking for their first Jennie K. victory: "No guts, no glory in my opinion. You have to walk in knowing what you have to do and commit to it."
It has worked for her at Mid-Pacific, across the warp-speed greens she loves, from the championship women’s tees that add some 300 yards to the course, and through all the difficult choices the Lanikai layout forces you to make.
Okino believes the course was made for Merkle.
"She is mentally strong. Her confidence level is amazing," Okino says. "It got to the point where once she won this tournament … she just loves this course. You can tell. She loves the atmosphere, the people. She is so comfortable here."