LPGA mistake leaves UCLA's Kono in tight spot

Stephanie Kono during the third round of LPGA Qualifying Tournament at LPGA International.

Stephanie Kono during the third round of LPGA Qualifying Tournament at LPGA International.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Trying to understand the LPGA’s membership criteria makes you feel a bit like that Massachusetts family that got lost in a corn maze and called 911. How we miss the black-and-white days of exempt and non-exempt. 

And now, with the LPGA’s newly streamlined qualifying system that combines LPGA and Futures Q-Schools into three stages, the layers of confusion can be maddening to an amateur such as Stephanie Kono.

All the UCLA senior wanted was to have full Futures Tour status waiting for her upon graduation next June. When Kono called LPGA headquarters to see how many stages she needed to play to secure a full schedule on the Futures Tour, she was told she would need to go to the final stage. UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth called, as well -- twice, in fact -- and was told the same thing. 

So Kono made the $2,500 investment to come to the final stage (plus hotel, rental car and flights from California for her and her father) knowing that her senior year now would be in jeopardy.

Forsyth, though frustrated that two of her seniors – Brianna Do and Kono – had to come to the final stage to secure Futures status, nonetheless gave her blessing. She understood that both wanted to turn professional should they finish in the top 20 and earn LPGA cards. No one would be crazy enough to turn down an LPGA card, given the fickle nature of this sport. Who knows where their games will be one year from now? (The LPGA requires players to turn professional on the spot to accept membership.)

“If the situation was like last year, where the two Q-Schools were separate, I would have just gone to Futures Tour Q-School,” Kono said.

If it seems like an unfair system, that’s because Kono got bad information. Someone at LPGA headquarters repeatedly told the UCLA contingent that the third stage was a necessary requirement to ensure solid status on the Futures Tour. That’s not the case. Both could have stopped after Stage II. When the tour realized the blunder on Wednesday, LPGA officials posted an open letter at the scoring tables on Thursday to try and clear up the matter and “apologized for any inconvenience or confusion that was caused,” LPGA vice president Heather Daly-Donofrio said.

By the time Kono realized she didn’t need to be in Daytona, she was two rounds into the final stage and in second place. She’s now tied for third after three rounds, trailing leader Christine Song by seven strokes.

“What am I going to do?” asked a frustrated Kono after her round. “I’m not going to pull out.”

Daly-Donofrio said from the beginning that the tour intended to make sure the top finishers from Stage II would “be guaranteed strong Futures Tour status so that no player felt that she had to attend Stage III if she was not ready to compete on the LPGA Tour for any other reason: financial, developmental or otherwise.”

Unfortunately, that message never got to Kono. 

Of all the players in this field, Kono and Do were the ones whom the LPGA needed to make sure understood the new system. They are the only amateurs who are in the midst of their senior seniors. Both simply wanted Futures Tour status.

Kono, a three-time first-team All-American at UCLA, is the ultimate team player. Not once had she indicated in the past that she wanted to leave school early. Players such as Sandra Gal and Anna Nordqvist came to the final stage of LPGA Q-School fully intending to leave their programs midyear if they got a card. They were ready to move on, and did.

Forsyth has one of the deepest rosters in NCAA history. That’s saying something, given that last season’s team won the NCAA Championship without Do, who won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links in June. Kono led the team last year in scoring (72.8), top 10s (6) and rounds under par (15). 

In September, the Bruins won the Mason Rudolph Fall Preview by six shots without Kono and Do, who were playing in Stage II of Q-School. UCLA could win the NCAAs again this spring even if both seniors were to turn professional this weekend. But that prospect shouldn’t even be on the table.

It’s unfortunate that Kono finds herself in such an unenviable predicament. Do is tied for 95th and would need career rounds during the last two days to have a shot at membership. If she doesn’t finish in the top 20, Do said she’ll keep her amateur status and go back to school. She’s only here because her dad signed her up for first stage.

Kono, however, could win Q-School. She’d make a fine LPGA rookie, but the soft-spoken Hawaiian really wanted to go back and finish school, try to win another NCAA crown before moving on to the developmental tour. 

To correct the situation, the LPGA should make an exception for Kono and allow her to defer membership until after she graduates. The LPGA made a mistake. An apology doesn’t seem like enough this time, and it’s ludicrous to expect her to withdraw.

Kono agrees that solution would be ideal, but thinks it’s a long shot. 

Forsyth brings up a good point to consider: Eliminate amateurs at the final stage. Give amateurs the chance to earn status on the Futures Tour through two stages, and then if they want to give the LPGA a chance, make them turn professional. Sounds fair to college coaches, who are tired of their programs being used as a safety net when Q-School doesn’t work out. 

Kono never intended to shirk her commitments to UCLA. But, like she said, she’s not going to come out and try to shoot 80, either.

So now she’s on the verge of getting what she always wanted: an LPGA card. But like many things in life, it will be bittersweet. 

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