By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Last summer, Dalen Yamauchi got hot at the right time and qualified for the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Soldier Hollow Golf Course in Utah, an experience that serves as wind on a sail whenever his game needs a push in the right direction.
The 2011 Waiakea graduate didn’t advance to match play after two rounds of stroke play. But he brought home only positive lessons, and the belief that anybody, especially from Hawaii, could be the next Casey Watabu.
Watabu is the local legend from Kauai who slayed a golfing dragon in 2006. He defeated future PGA Tour pro Anthony Kim 4 and 3, standing taller than 4,738 entries and earning a Masters invite, the biggest perk to winning the national publinx.
“I remember Casey,” said Yamauchi, a UH-Hilo sophomore golfer. “Once you make the cut, I believe anything can happen, just like for Casey Watabu. “I learned a lot of things. There are really good players up there. Just going up there was a great experience. Nothing can replace that. It gives guys who play on public courses a chance to get in the Masters.”
The United States Golfing Association will retire the U.S. Amateur Public Links (APL) and U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links (WAPL) after the 2014 competitions. In its place will be U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championships for men and women.
It seems unlikely that there will be a Hilo qualifier for the four-ball championship, which a USGA official lauded for “popularity and enjoyment of this competitive format at the amateur level.” The local qualifier for the APL will be gone in two years, as well as the accompanying carrot to the Masters.
The USGA reasoned that the U.S. Amateur (a tourney Tiger Woods won three times) and APL serve the same function. The organization changed requirements in 1979 to allow entry to public-course players to the U.S. Amateur tourney for men and women. Previously, it was restricted to USGA club members.
Basically, the APL or affectionately known as the publinx was established for the Average Joe. But big names have played, too. Michelle Wie won the WAPL at age 13 in 2003. Former APL champions include Trevor Immelman (1998) and Brandt Snedeker (2003).
Losing a local qualifier for a national amateur tournament in Hilo’s backyard is a huge blow, in the mind of Chris Igawa, who has qualified four times. His last trip was in 2010 at Bryan Park Golf Course in Greensboro, N.C., where he reached the round of 16.
“I think they’re making a poor decision. They’re cutting off public ties to a bigger national tourney,” he said. “It’s a quality tournament and it’s just as big as the U.S. Amateur. It’s a strike against us. For us, we have to travel to a U.S. Amateur qualifier on Oahu, and pay for airfare, car, hotel, entry fee, and food. That’s easily $1,000. I feel for the up-and-coming junior golfers, who were looking forward to it. It’s a big hit.”
Like Yamauchi, Igawa, a 1998 Waiakea graduate and Hilo dentist, has fond memories of his publinx journeys, especially in 2010.
“I remember 2010. It was in North Carolina and I went kind of deep there,” he said. “There were so many emotions, barely making it into match play, taking down two guys and reaching the round of 16. It’s a goal you set for yourself. You play a great course and meet great people along the way. It’s just the experience when you set foot from start to finish. You take the positives and have a great outlook at it.”
Sean Maekawa, a 2007 Honokaa graduate, also has a strong attachment to the APL. He qualified six times, the last one in 2011 and had a streak from 2005 to ’09. He golfed at Oregon and is now playing on the Gateway Tour, based in Arizona.
Like Igawa, he believes the loss of the local APL qualifier will only hurt the junior golfers, especially those who want to play in college.
“It’s a bummer for everybody,” said Maekawa, who reached the round of 16 in 2008. “I felt fortunate to have been able to play. If you do well, it’s an asset to finding a college. It definitely helped me go to Oregon because when you play against college players, the coach can see how your scores stack up.”
Life on tour
Maekawa is relying on hitting the ball straight, and sinking putts to make a living on the Gateway Tour. It’s a different deal from golf life as an Oregon Duck, when an errant shot didn’t cost you $900 bucks, the entry tourney fee.
“It’s tough. You have a 54-hole tourney and a major cut after two days,” he said. “They take the top 33 percent. If you have 150 guys, it’s the top 50. There are former PGA and Nationwide guys out here. If you shoot even, it’s hard enough to make the cut. You have to be 1 or 2 under to get your entry fee back.
“I made two cuts out of five tourneys. A couple I barely missed. My best finish was 27th. For the new guys, we don’t really know the course. You play one practice round and the next day you have to perform and shoot numbers.”
Still, Maekawa is enjoying his time on the Gateway Tour, a third-level tour behind the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour (formerly Nationwide Tour). The Web.com Tour is the developmental tour run by the PGA Tour.
His advice for anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps is simple.
“Belief in yourself is very important,” he said. “I had to adjust to playing on tour. Playing for money is very different. You’re paying for gas, your practice round. You’re paying over $1,000. But you can’t think about that. You have to believe in your ability and you shouldn’t put yourself below anybody. That’s really huge.”
The NCAA Division regionals will be held May 5-8 at Saint Martin’s University in Olympia, Wash. It will be next tournament after Yamauchi tied for first at the Pacific West Conference championship then lost the title in a playoff.
“It was a really good experience. Someone has to win. There can’t be two winners,” he said. “It was a good experience and I really enjoyed it. “My game is OK. There’s always something to work on. There’s always a chance to get better, no matter how good you are.”
Yamauchi and his personal swing coach Lee Hardy, his coach at Waiakea, worked on fundamentals and his mindset last summer. He wanted to focus on working around the green, putting and the strategy of one shot setting up the next — much like chess.
“One of the first things he taught me was don’t try to be perfect. You’ll get tense and won’t play well,” Yamauchi said. “The next big one is the next shot is the most important. That’s something he ingrained in my head.
“I’ll try and play a round of golf at the regionals. I want to be in control of myself and that’s it. It doesn’t matter where you are in the field. You have to think the same thing and play golf. The winner adds up to the lowest score.”
After his UHH sophomore season is finished, Yamauchi will be back at the Hilo qualifier for the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, hoping to recapture last summer’s glory.
Igawa will be back, too, at least for two more years.