By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
WAIKOLOA – During his 23 years as University of Hawaii at Hilo men’s golf coach, Earl Tamiya has amassed his share of good and bad memories from Division I tournaments.
The biggest horror story came the first year UHH competed at the Burns Intercollegiate on Oahu. The Vulcans’ score was so high that the tournament officials couldn’t even calculate it.
“They made fun of me so bad,” Tamiya said. “We shot a 1,000. ‘They said, Earl, come on, our scoreboard doesn’t even register four digits.”
The Vuls have since graduated to three digits, and a point of pride came one year at Waikoloa when UHH finished in front of Arizona State and its band of All-Americans.
“They were top five, but the wind came up so bad, we beat them,” Tamiya said. “For one day, we beat them.”
The field is once again stout for the Amer Ari at Waikoloa Beach Resort, which tees of at 7:30 a.m. today at the Kings’ Course. The field of 20 teams includes eight Division I ranked squads, including No. 2 Texas, the defending tournament champion. And four of the NCAA’s best golfers, including No.-1 ranked Cheng-Tsung Pan, a Washington sophomore, will compete on the Kohala Coast. The second and third rounds follow Thursday and Friday at 7:30 a.m.
Tamiya has a standard line before the tournament begins each year: Good luck, we’re going to need it.
That may be true once again this time around, but the Vulcans already have greatly surpassed their coach’s expectations once this season, winning three of four Division II tournaments during the fall.
The key now is to try and regain the momentum.
“Definitely the most consistent I’ve ever played,” said junior Corey Kozuma, who tamed the Kings’ Course in October, grabbing medalist honors as the Vuls easily won the Dennis Rose Intercollegiate.
“Everything just kind of fell into place. It was a really good fall. Ball-striking, I drove the ball consistently, I hit a lot of greens and my short game was sharp. I putted at well.”
Kozuma established himself as UHH’s most consistent golfer with four top-10 finishes in the fall, and Tamiya said he’s picked up where he left off.
“I don’t know, he must have stepped on something,” Tamiya said with a chuckle. “But he’s been playing well.”
To a man, UHH’s players say the step up in level of competition this week has no bearing on their mindset. They’ll approach the Amer Ari no differently than if it was a Division II tournament.
“It doesn’t change anything,” said sophomore, Dalen Yamauchi, a Waiakea graduate. “You still have to put the ball in the hole.”
That could be harder for everybody if the winds whip up at Waikoloa.
The stronger the better for the Kings’ Course-tested Vulcans, or any other teams that get off to slow starts.
“It’s an equalizer,” Tamiya said. “All the teams that are in the back usually tell me, ‘Earl, crank up that wind machine.’”
Yamauchi’s best finish in the fall came in a tie for third at Dennis Rose. He spent the offseason working on his putting and distance control.
A Waikoloa veteran, he’s not counting on any home-course advantage.
“These players are so good, they just play one practice round and they’ll figure it out,” he said.
Sophomore Jamie Hall has perhaps the highest ceiling of any Vulcan. He called his fall season a “battle,” but he still parlayed his powerful game off the tee into a victory at Sonoma (Calif.).
The biggest difference, according to Hall, between Division I and II teams: depth.
“I think these teams are stronger 1-5,” Hall said. “Where Division II teams might be strong 1-3 and 4-5 might vary.
“But I think we have great depth.”
Kozuma, Yamauchi and Hall finished 1-2-3, respectively, in a recent qualifying round, and they’ll be joined this week by Kyeton Littel, second at Dennis Rose, and freshman James-Moran Horton, the only new face in the Vulcans five-player rotation.
However, all nine Vulcans will play this week, and Tamiya will use the results to set his lineup for the rest of the spring. The veteran coach also tries to strategically set the Amer Ari pairings so that his golfers play the 18 holes while bumping elbows with some of the college game’s best.
“I’ll play my own game,” Hall said. “But I’ll watch them and see what they do and maybe pick up a few things and take them into the D-II season.”
Once UHH gets there, it should feel relaxed. The Vulcans have already wrapped up a berth at super regionals thanks to its stellar fall season. After Waikoloa, the Vulcans head to Turtle Bay in Laie, Oahu, for another Division I tournament, the University of Hawaii-hosted Burns, then they have three D-II events leading up to the Pacific West Conference tournament, April 22-23 in Phoenix.
Over the years, Tamiya’s goals have changed for the better at Waikoloa. It used to be he just wanted to avoid the cellar, but this year he’s hoping for a top-10 finish.
“I hope we beat all the teams coming in from the snow,” Tamiya said. “The Colorado coach just emailed me and said all their practices have been indoors because it’s been so cold.
“I told him, ‘Good luck. It’s been cold here, too. Last night I slept with a blanket.
He emailed me back, but I can’t repeat it.”