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Oahu Country Club hosts Hawaii’s oldest test for amateurs

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    SPT CUP 07 2005 JUNE 11 - Travis Toyama hits off the 11th tee of Oahu Country Club during the final round of the Manoa Cup. Toyama won the event. Star-Bulletin photo by Richard Walker
    Below, the course as it looked in 1927 and a score card from 1934.

Even before Oahu Country Club’s board approved a motion in 1911 to allocate $100 to buy more sheep to “graze on the greens” there was Manoa Cup, Hawaii’s amateur match-play championship.

Tyler Ota won this year’s 107th Cup. In the last week, Ota also captured the 52nd OCC Men’s Invitational and Kristen Le became the OCC Women’s Invitational champion for the second time in three years. That event is closing on 40 years.

Hawaii’s second-oldest course — after Moanalua — has become the state’s most distinguished amateur venue. The private club’s history also includes hosting the first Territorial Women’s Amateur Championship in 1924 and it remains the home of the Hawaii State Women’s Golf Association Match Play Championship.

“It’s one of the most beautiful sites in Hawaii and not many can experience it because it’s a country club, yet we can come twice year and experience it,” Ota marvels. “Amateur golf in Hawaii is very lucky for all the tournaments we have. You hear pros complain because we have more tournaments. Golf is illogical.”

That might be why the game is an ideal fit for OCC. In an era of 7,500-yard courses careening through hundreds of acres, it tucks 6,000 yards into 110 acres in a gorgeous valley (Waolani) with heiaus, tucked into another breathtaking valley (Nuuanu).

The club peers down at Honolulu’s skyline — to say nothing of the Pacific Ocean — and runs parallel to busy Pali Highway. Both are minutes away, on foot, yet it is immensely peaceful.

“It’s just the beauty of the Waolani Valley overlooking Honolulu,” says Curtis Kono, the 1987 Manoa Cup champ who was hired as OCC’s greens superintendent 10 years later. “It’s all natural jungle, one of Hawaii’s special places. … It has a natural peaceful feel.”

What shatters the peace for golfers is the near-absence of level lies — the course rises and falls some 400 feet into the valley — and an average of 100 inches of rainfall annually. Members have called it the “dowager queen of Hawaii courses — pristine and picturesque, steeped in terrain and tradition.”

It makes for compelling theater, along with the match-play format of Manoa Cup and the recent switch to Stableford scoring at the women’s invitational. That system, which essentially erases bad holes, was deemed necessary when the tournament struggled to get women to enter because of OCC’s unique challenges.

Le, an OCC member about to start her sophomore season on the Santa Clara golf team, learned to love it moments after she learned to count it. That came when she turned in her scorecard after winning the 2012 title.

She acknowledges the difficulties of OCC, particularly for women, and adds the lush greens to its list of challenges.

“I’m sure they confuse everyone,” says Le, whose five birdies in Monday’s first round were the heart of a winning score of 74 Stableford points. “Especially No. 13. It’s so fast above the hole, always curving a lot. And during Manoa Cup the greens are really slick.”

Yet Nos. 13 and 14 — at the very top of the valley — and the back nine in general, are her favorites places on the course, “because you can really tell how beautiful it is.”

Two videos now on the OCC website describe its beauty, history and idiosyncrasies, and the members’ gifts to amateur golf.

Kono, who caddied for his uncle, Billy Arakawa, when he won the 1953 Manoa Cup, is a huge part of that gift. He calls nurturing the 110-year-old course, with 44-year-old greens and an internal drainage system “decades older,” the most difficult part of his job.

The members and all those amateurs that experience his work are grateful.

“They are constantly working on this golf course to improve it,” says Millie Yee, 77, who has been a member since 1988. She was single then and OCC was the only course she could join on her own.

Yee, whose brother is former major leaguer Mike Lum, is quick to point out OCC’s outrageously difficult course rating of 132 and believes much of its allure for amateurs is the challenge.

“The men especially all come and play,” she says. “It’s such an honor if you win here.”

And such a challenge. Four-time Manoa Cup champ Brandan Kop, an OCC member, says you can “play this course everyday and never have the same lie … it’s like playing a different course everyday.”

Yet, if all the stars — and weather and weird lies — align, you can go low at OCC. Seven holes offer legitimate eagle opportunities. Ota fired 6-under-par 65 Saturday, then won a playoff with three others who finished at 2 under for the three-day tournament.

It was the eighth time a Manoa Cup champ also won the invitational the same year. Matt Ma was one, in 2012. He later proposed to his wife at OCC.

Why is it called Manoa Cup? The Manoa Golf Course, near what is now College Hill, opened in 1904. It was sold for development a year later and a trophy made for a tournament there was given to Oahu Country Club when it opened in 1906.

No one wants to change anything about Manoa Cup now, especially where it is played.

“It just wouldn’t be the same,” Ota says. “It would be like asking if The Masters would be the same if it was played at Pebble Beach. That’s historic too, but not the same history. Nope, nope nope. It would not be the same.”

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