Kono earns LPGA card with mixed emotions

Stephanie Kono of UCLA talks with dad, Teruo Kono, while deciding whether to turn pro after finishing in the top 20 during the final round of LPGA Qualifying Tournament at LPGA International.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Stephanie Kono sat on the ground outside the scoring tent, her dad kneeling beside her. She wanted to call UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth before telling the media of her decision to turn professional. Kono, the ultimate team player, wanted to do this right.

Moments before, the UCLA senior needed to par the 18th hole at LPGA International to earn her LPGA card and avoid a crowded playoff. She made birdie.

“It was difficult because I had so many mixed emotions,” said Kono, who was required under LPGA regulations to turn professional immediately after her round to accept her tour status. Kono had one semester of eligibility remaining with the Bruins, who are No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, and needed six more credits to graduate. “I wanted to play well, but (thought) if I do play well, am I making the right decision?”

Forsyth told Kono she agreed with the decision to turn pro. Even though Forsyth was losing her team leader, she knew there would be no guarantees that Kono would get similar results one year from now. Take the card.

Forsyth had made peace with the fact that Kono might not be on her roster next spring before Kono even left L.A. But when she found out that her star senior didn’t even need to be in Daytona Beach to get the Futures Tour status she desired, an angry Forsyth took issue with the tour.

“The lack of desire to try to do anything to rectify the situation was very disappointing,” said Forsyth, who called the tour twice to make sure her two seniors – Kono and Brianna Do, who missed the 72-hole cut – needed to go to all three stages to ensure a full schedule on the Futures Tour. Turns out she received bad information. Both players could’ve stopped after two stages.

Kono never wanted to leave UCLA early, but now at the final stage, with a tour card dangling in front of her face, she couldn’t say no.

The logical thing for the tour to do was offer Kono a one-time-only deferment, allowing her to accept membership after college graduation. A simple apology wasn’t enough.

“For them, this is a blip on the radar of the trouble the tour is facing,” Forsyth said. But for the top-ranked Bruins program, it’s a tremendous blow. Three-time first-team All-Americans aren’t easily replaced.

Kono insists she will finish her degree. She plans to return to Los Angeles to live with her teammate, Lee Lopez. Kono, who is from Honolulu, asked Forsyth if she could be a volunteer assistant and travel with the team. Leaving early never was in Kono’s plans.

Exhausted and relieved, Kono cried tears of joy and tears of sadness when all was said and done. She knows what awaits her won’t be easy.

“I’m scared,” Kono said. “I’m definitely scared.”

In a way, the LPGA was lucky this happened to an impeccably polite player such as Stephanie Kono. She was frustrated with the situation but handled it with class.

At a time when a thin LPGA schedule means limited starts and limited sponsorships, the tour should do everything it can to encourage young players to go to school and get their degrees. Yes, this ultimately was Kono’s decision. But she found herself in this predicament because of the tour’s mistake. It’s a shame they couldn’t take ownership of their blunder and make it right.

The National Golf Coaches Association has its annual meeting this week in Las Vegas. One has to believe LPGA Q-School will be among the hot topics on the table. After what Forsyth experienced this week with the tour, however, she’s not optimistic that much can be done to make a better transition between college and professional golf.

“Right now, I don’t have a lot of hope,” she said.

How sad.

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