Local golfers lament passing of public links tournaments


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 in the sails 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 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 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.”

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.