Homecoming Weekend

For Hawaii’s Three LPGA Players – Michelle Wie, Ayaka Kaneko And Stephanie Kono – This Weekend’s Lotte Championship Is A Chance To Enjoy Local Foods And Friends. For Fans, It’s A Chance To See Them Up Close. Says Wie: ‘I Hope A Lot Of People Come Out, Have Fun And Get Rowdy!’

Hawaii’s homegrown LPGA players – Ayaka Kaneko, Stephanie Kono and Michelle Wie – are here Wednesday through Saturday, and fans are expected to flock to Ko Olina to see them compete in the LOTTE Championship

Michelle Wie

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Michelle Wie has been spending time working on her putting stroke. Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images photo

The LPGA returns to Oahu after a two-year hiatus, bringing in some of its brightest stars, a $1.7 million purse and most importantly to us locally, our three favorite 22-year-old golfing females.

The tournament will be held at Ko Olina this Wednesday through Saturday under its new moniker the LOTTE Championship, and will feature nine of the top 10 pros on tour along with fan favorites such as Morgan Pressel, Karrie Webb and Natalie Gulbis. While these names may set golf fans’ hearts aflutter, it is the return of our local gals that should swell the galleries this weekend.

Two of them are fresh to the tour this year with Stephanie Kono and Ayaka Kaneko having just earned their tour cards. Then there is Michelle Wie. Despite being the same age as the other two, it feels like she has been a pro for decades.

Despite their similarities – all three are Asian, raised on Oahu, went to private schools and have been exhibiting their promise from a young age – they could not be more different as people.

Kaneko was born in Japan but moved to Hawaii at age 12, and had little attraction to the sport. Coming from a sporting family – her father played professional baseball for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan and insisted she find a sport. But it took a little while for the spark to take.

“He wanted me to try everything,” says the soft-spoken Kaneko, who attended Sacred Hearts Academy. “So I tried golf, swimming, tennis, even softball. The first time I tried golf when I was 12, I didn’t even like it. But by the time I turned 16, I really started to love the game.”

That love blossomed quickly as the tweener who found the game dull turned into a 17-year-old who beat Michelle Wie by seven strokes and finished 45th overall at the Fields Open in 2008, the last time an LPGA event was held at Ko Olina.

Without much local fanfare she took second in the 2006 Callaway Golf Junior World Golf Championship and was runner-up the following year at the U.S. Junior Girls Amateur Championship.

In order to hone her game, she opted for home schooling after the ninth grade, which caused her to miss out on a lot of youthful frivolities, but Kaneko believes it was worth it.

“It gave me time to practice and time to travel and mostly time to golf,” says Kaneko, who enrolled at Pepperdine, but withdrew after an injury her freshman year. “I missed school because I never got to see my friends, didn’t go to the prom or the usual high school stuff. I missed out on a lot, but it was totally worth it because you have to sacrifice things to do something great.”

She has a chance to show that greatness on the big stage this weekend as she will be going up against her idols on a course she knows well, with the world watching on the Golf Channel.

In contrast to Kaneko’s quiet demeanor and late-bloomer love for the game, Kono has become every bit the bubbly UCLA girl you would expect, and has had a passion for the game since the first time she got to grip a club at age 6.

“My mom and dad used to play; they weren’t very good,” says Kono with a laugh. “They never pushed me to play, but I played, and I couldn’t stand getting beaten by my dad, so I kept playing.”

Soon enough, young Kono did not have those concerns anymore. By the age of 8 she was beating her dad regularly, and the future began to lay itself out before her. She had won the women’s state match play title at the age of 11 and had completed the “Paradise Slam” by winning all three women’s majors and the Hawaii State Open by the tender age of 13.

She had to work hard to get there, not having the physical gifts of Wie (she is a full 9 inches shorter), but it netted her a scholarship to UCLA. She led the Bruins to a national championship last year as a junior, and was poised to do the same this year and perhaps win National Player of the Year honors when the most bittersweet of all things happened. She played her way right out of amateur status and into the pros.

The story is long and convoluted, but the essence of it is Kono wanted to play on the Futures Tour during her senior year at UCLA, something allowed by the NCAA. In order to do so, she had to play well at Q-School, but the LPGA misinformed her of how long she needed to play, telling her she had to play in the third and final round to make the Futures Tour. By the time the error was realized, Kono had shot herself right onto the Tour.

“By then, I was already in second place in the final stage, so it was too late to go back,” says Kono, who finished ninth and was offered her LPGA card just off the 18th green. “I really had mixed emotions about it. I had always planned on playing for UCLA for four years, but I can’t really complain. Being on the LPGA is a dream come true.”

While Kono’s ambivalence is understandable, her coach Carrie Forsyth was furious at having her best player taken away from her because of the LPGA’s ignorance of its own rules. Yet Forsyth let Kono keep her scholarship, allowing her to graduate with her friends in June.

Her first couple of events as a pro have been rough, but Kono has a very pragmatic view of life and knows it is not going to be easy.

“Being a rookie, I don’t get to play in all the events, only full field events,” says Kono, who will play in 12 events this year. “I’m just trying to stay patient, not putting too much pressure on myself, really believing in myself. My goal is to compete regularly. I know I cannot control if I win every week. I can go out and shoot 20 under and someone else can shoot 21 under. But I do want to compete, I love to be in that situation, in that moment. It really is the best feeling.”

She looks forward to taking that next step this weekend, and is glad for the home course advantage.

“It is so exciting to have the LPGA back here in the Islands,” says Kono, who still stays with her parents when out here but has an apartment back in Westwood. “I have lots of friends and family to have people rooting me on. I won’t be just another player this week.”

The big news in Wie’s life is that she’s just graduated from Stanford University, where her time was divided between golf and studies.

“It means,” Wie says happily, “I’ll never have to do homework ever again!”

And she recently moved to Jupiter, Fla.

“Since I’ve been in college, my base was Orlando to be close to David Ledbetter’s academy,” she says. “But I realized that being from Hawaii, I need to be close to the ocean. From where I live now, it’s only about a mile away. It’s a nice beach, but the water is so warm – that was kind of weird at first.

“Being back home the past week, I practiced in the morning and then went to the beach with friends in the afternoon. I’ve been doing stand-up paddle boarding for a while.”

Without homework, she’s focusing more on her art, and hopes to actually sell some of her pieces. When asked if that means she’ll have a double income, golf and art, she laughs: “Maybe.”

As for her avowed interest in fashion design: “I really like sewing, so that’s just a really fun hobby. But it is something I’d like to study later on.

“One of the things I’ve been enjoying, and look forward to more, is just having time for myself. I had zero quiet time in school. I was always rushing from one class to another, then homework, rush to the course to practice, then more studying.”

One big recent change is that Wie, who became quite a cook at Stanford, switched to a gluten-free diet.

“I was always getting sick before. I have a lot of food allergies, and my stomach was always sore. So I made the switch, and I feel really good about the results and how I feel. The only bad part is malasadas are out – I can’t eat about half the local food I like.”

Regarding the two local golfers with whom she shares this week’s MidWeek cover – her third: “I’ve known Stephanie Kono since junior golf, and from Punahou. And Ayako, I used to see her a lot at Waialae.”

The island trio doesn’t hang out on tour, “but it’s really awesome to see them on tour now and to see some familiar faces.”

Preparing for this week’s LOTTE Open, she says she’s been “skill building” in her practices at Ko Olina, and “remembering the course. And obviously I’ve been working on my putting,” which failed her in earlier tournaments. As for this week’s tournament: “I’m so happy to be back in the 808 and see a lot of familiar faces. I hope a lot of people come out, have fun and get rowdy!”

(With reporting by Don Chapman)