By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Jamie Hall is ready to add an improved putter to a golf bag that already includes a formidable driver.
At least he thinks he is. University of Hawaii at Hilo coach Earl Tamiya isn’t convinced yet.
There’s no doubting Hall’s powerful ball-striking skills or that he enters the year as UHH’s clear-cut top player. A winner of two tournaments during his freshman campaign last season, he’s the only Vul with a victory under his belt. He also posted a runner-up finish last season, and his win total could have been even higher if not for that pesky putter, according to Tamiya.
“Jamie hits the ball well,” he said. “If he could putt, he would win everything.”
Two of the Vulcans’ top players last season transferred to Division I schools – Blake Snyder went to Washington State and Travis Russell is now at Cal-Irvine – but thanks to the 6-foot-2 sophomore from Seattle, UHH still has its heaviest hitter.
“Of all the kids, Jamie has the best chance to make it in the pros,” Tamiya said. “He has the potential. He hits the ball far, he hits the ball pure … it’s just that his putting is suspect.”
Sitting just a chip shot away, Hall has a slightly different outlook. In his mind, he likes the direction his short game is headed.
“My putting got a little better, I thought; I guess not,” he said. “I got a lot stronger from 100 yards and in, so that’s helpful. It’s about remaining consistent, that’s probably the biggest thing.”
When UHH tees off at the Western Washington Invitational today, Hall will be joined by (in order of preseason practice scoring average) sophomore Dalen Yamauchi, freshman Kyeton Littel and juniors Corey Kozuma and Chris Shimomura.
They’ll look to get UHH off to a strong start in the first of four Division II tournaments during a fall lineup that ends with the Dennis Rose Intercollegiate in late October at Waikoloa Kings’ Course.
The Vuls finished third at the Pacific West Conference championships last season and eighth at regionals.
Hall, who’s fielding some D-I offers himself, says the losses of Russell and Snyder, the league champion two seasons ago, just mean the next man has to stand up.
“These fall tournaments are big for our ranking, because in the spring we play mostly D-I tournaments,” Hall said. “That makes the D-II tournaments big to get us into regionals.”
In the offseason, Yamauchi, a Waiakea graduate, and Littel both earned qualifying berths to the U.S. Amateur Public Links at separate sectionals, Littel on his native Maui and Yamauchi at Hilo Municipal Golf Course.
Neither advanced to match play at the July publinx held in Utah, but their confidence grew because of the experience.
“Playing against the nation, there are a lot of good players out there,” said Yamauchi, whose best finish last season was a tie for seventh at Dennis Rose (217). “It shows what you can reach.”
Littel, meanwhile, said the proverbial light bulb went off when he carded a 36-hole 136 in his qualifier in June at Waiehu Golf Course.
“I understood that when you play, you play to win but you play within yourself,” he said. “Just let go of everything and focus on that one shot.”
A relative late-bloomer to golf, Littel can trace his interest in the game to a moment etched in Masters lore: Tiger Woods’ chip shot to save birdie on No. 16 in 2005.
“That was when I wanted to play,” said Littel, who played in high school at Kamehameha-Maui before walking on at UHH.
Like Hall, he’s working on getting his short game to catch up to with his ball-striking, but most of all he’s focused on his being sound mentally early during rounds.
“I play like a young, reckless person, and then I calm down as the round goes on,” he said. “In the beginning, I’m very nervous, but after the first few shots, I become my self again.”
Kozuma’s the oldest player on a team that doesn’t have a senior. He played his best golf last season when it counted, finishing 10th at the PacWest finals and 21st at regionals, both team bests.
He and Shimomura are the only remaining members of the UHH team that won the PacWest two seasons ago.
While this squad doesn’t have the pedigree of its predecessor yet, Kozuma said he and his teammates do have at least one advantage as they head to the mainland for the first of two tournaments.
“The team is a lot closer right now, we’re really tight knit,” said Kozuma, an Iolani (Oahu) graduate. “We all get along, and I think that’s going to help on the road. Everybody will be supporting each other and keeping a positive outlook and helping each other play to our strengths.”
After finishing up final-round play Tuesday in Bellingham, Wash., the Vulcans will stay in the Northwest and prepare to go up against a strong field at the GolfWeek Division II Fall Invitational, which starts Oct. 1 in Sunriver, Ore.
Shimomura also peaked at the PacWest finals last spring, finishing 13th in a 54-hole effort that included a 68 in the second round. During eight rounds of preseason team qualifying, he said he narrowly earned the fifth travel spot.
“Everyone played well,” said the Lahaina, Maui, native. “It was a tight race, it just came down to the numbers.
“We have a young team, but we have a lot of potential. All the guys can play.”