Aug 15, 2013 (Menafn – The Honolulu Star-Advertiser – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) –Coming out of Kalani High School, Nicole Sakamoto offered us a peek at lots of potential but little else. What a difference five years, hard work, good coaching and confidence can make.
Sakamoto just won her fourth consecutive Hawaii State Women’s Stroke Play Championship, giving her seven titles in the last 10 Hawaii women’s majors she has played. In between, she won two collegiate tournaments and shattered almost every golf record James Madison ever had.
Next week, she leaves for Stage I of LPGA Qualifying, at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. After a year of training and working at Olomana Golf Links, and helping her family out, Sakamoto is taking the next step. It’s a steep one, but now golf is not just a game, but her passion. And, she believes in herself.
None of that was true five years ago.
“Not at all,” Sakamoto acknowledged. “I liked golf, but when I first began I didn’t like it much. I broke through in college. I did not see myself where I am today, but I’m very thankful I am here and that I get the opportunity to pursue what I want.”
Success here, on her first summer back from JMU, gave her a glimmer of hope. She broke through her sophomore season in college.
“I won a big tournament with a bunch of top schools,” Sakamoto recalled. “When I beat those girls I was like, OK. … Now I’m pretty focused.”
Everyone watching has seen the change. The tall girl out of Casey Nakama’s Golf Development Program now plays with the imagination of Nakama and the precise execution of Hawaii Golf Hall of Famer Lance Suzuki. He started working with Sakamoto in high school, when she needed more individual instruction and Nakama’s junior program was taking off.
“It was a good, mutual thing,” Nakama said. “I totally trust his information.”
Suzuki brought her to the point where she could dominate here, but it wasn’t until Sakamoto saw consistent success back east that she believed in herself. Suzuki knows there are still gaps in her game — it’s golf — but is convinced she is ready.
“She knows basically that … she is capable of doing this,” he said. “To me, that’s good enough. If you believe you can do it you are capable. She went away to school, played on the East Coast. That’s a plus for her. She won tournaments in college, competed and won on the mainland.
“The main thing is she dominated women’s golf here the last three years so she has to spread her wings and see how she will do at the next level. That’s what she’s been practicing and playing for even in college. She knew she wanted to turn pro and give the LPGA a try. It’s her dream. Within the next few weeks it will come true.”
Nearly 300 players will be at the first stage. Last year 61 advanced to the second stage of three. The last two stages are in Florida, where Suzuki likes Sakamoto’s chances in conditions more like where she grew up.
He admits a big part of the reason she dominated here was her 5-foot-8 height and strength, using the Larry Price line “physical superiority cancels out all strategy.” Now she will be with players who hit farther, so shotmaking and course management are more critical, along with putting.
But confidence is the most critical gift a golfer can have, Suzuki insists, and Sakamoto has it.
“Confidence is everything in golf,” Suzuki said. “As a coach or teacher, if you can instill confidence it’s the greatest asset you can give a kid. If you give her the confidence that she can win … once she believed that it was so much easier.”
It took awhile, but Sakamoto got there with a little help from her friends and family.
“I feel like I can play with the girls on the LPGA,” Sakamoto said. “This is just to see how good I really am, mentally and physically. Mentally mostly, because golf is 95 percent mental. It will show me exactly what I need to touch up on.”
That will happen in the first round, Aug. 27, or maybe even earlier on the driving range. But folks who know her best aren’t worried. They realize she is now pursuing her passion, and has a lot more going for her than golf.
“She thinks good,” Nakama said, “and doesn’t have any … sometimes parents get in the way, but her mom and dad are real good. They relaxed a little bit so she’s doing it for herself. That’s important, I think.”
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