Stephanie Kono is a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) who was named to the eight-woman USA Curtis Cup Team that will compete against Great Britain and Ireland June 11-13 at Essex County Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass. Kono, a first-team All-America selection in 2008-09, is a two-time USGA semifinalist who also advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2009 U.S. Women’s Amateur, where she lost to the eventual champion Jennifer Song. The Honolulu, Hawaii, native also has won three collegiate events. Before attending UCLA, Kono graduated from the Punahou School, the same high school that produced President Barack Obama and current LPGA Tour star and 2004 Curtis Cup Team member Michelle Wie. Kono recently chatted with USGA communications staff writer David Shefter about her Curtis Cup selection and her preparations for the college postseason and the Match this June.
What was your reaction when you received the phone call?
Kono: I was so happy. I’ve been thinking about this for the past few months. It’s just an incredible feeling to be selected for the team.
Is the waiting part tough, especially since in the past the team has been named in late January or early February and this year the selections weren’t done until early April?
Kono: It’s hard because it’s not something you can control. I could play in my events and just do the best that I could, but at the end of the day, I don’t get to choose if I am on the team or not. It’s a committee and they choose. I had to push it out of my mind and go about my everyday [routine] and just compete in every tournament the best that I could.
Did school and college competition keep your mind off the waiting period?
Kono: It does. School is stressful as everyone knows. Competing in the collegiate events and then keeping up with school helps me a lot. If I didn’t have that, I think I would go crazy.
One of your UCLA teammates, Tiffany Lua, also was named to the team. How cool is it to have a fellow Bruin on the Curtis Cup team?
Kono: I’m so excited that she got selected. I’ve gotten to know her this school year and she is just amazing. She’s so funny and she is a really nice person. I’m really happy to have someone [on the Curtis Cup team] that I am really close with.
You and Tiffany have been competing against each other for many years in junior and amateur golf, but was it when she came to UCLA that you really got to know her personality?
Kono: It’s different when you are on the same team as someone. I got to know her goofy side. She’s so funny. She makes me laugh all the time. What makes her so funny is that she doesn’t try to be funny. Her everyday actions and the things she says are so off-the-charts sometimes. It’s hilarious. She just keeps it coming constantly. We are laughing with her, not at her. And she means well. You just have to be around her.
One of your former UCLA teammates and two-time Women’s Amateur Public Links champion Tiffany Joh played on the 2008 Curtis Cup team at St. Andrews. Have you reached out to her for advice?
Kono: Not yet. But I definitely will before the Curtis Cup.
What do you think your emotions will be on the first tee?
Kono: I am going to be so nervous, but it’s going to be a great feeling. I played in the Junior Solheim Cup in ’07 [in Sweden] and the best part is hearing your name being announced in the beginning. And having them announcing it as representing the United States, it’s just a huge feeling of pride.
What’s the best part of playing in an international competition?
Kono: Dressing up in red, white and blue. When I played in the Junior Solheim Cup, it was in Europe. But I think it’s going to be a totally different feeling to play in the United States. To have those fans cheering for you and the team. It’s going to be so much more exciting.
Do you know much about the history of the Curtis Cup?
Kono: Not really. I’ve always dreamed of playing on the Curtis Cup team, but I didn’t know what my chances were. And I had no idea that I even had a chance of being on this team. I didn’t even think about Curtis Cup until someone called and asked me if I was on the team. I was like, Wait a minute, is that even this year? And they were like, Yeah, we think you have a good chance. I was like, Oh my God, now I am thinking about it. Thank you.
But you did know what the Curtis Cup was about?
Kono: I knew what it was about because [former UCLA teammate] Tiffany Joh played in it. So I knew how prestigious it was. I was actually reading up on the Curtis Cup facts that they have about [Essex County Club] and apparently the third green is the oldest one in America. I’m excited to see the famous third green. I really like old-style courses.
Have you been to Boston before?
Kono: The Public Links was there last year [at Red Tail in Devens, about 45 minutes from the city]. I got a chance to see some of the city. I just walked about with my dad. We ate at this restaurant that was supposedly America’s oldest. We waited like two hours to eat lobster there.
I hope the wait was worth it.
Kono: It was amazing. The food was so good. I am so excited to go back to Boston.
Did you have an injury earlier this year that kept you sidelined for a bit?
Kono: I had a back injury, so I missed the first tournament of the spring. I was out for about two months. I think I tore a few ligaments. It was resting mostly and then rehab exercises to strengthen my core and to strengthen those muscles that take the stress off my back.
How has the back held up since your return?
Kono: It’s been great. I think my game has been really good. I think it actually helped me because I could only work on my short game during that time. So my short game got a lot better. I think it’s been beneficial for me.
Have you posted any individual wins this spring?
Kono: I just won [on April 11] at Arizona State. I was playing with [Curtis Cup Team members] Jennifer Johnson [of Arizona State] and Jennifer Song [of USC] in the last group and shot 66 to win by one over Jennifer Song.
Did the three of you talk about the Curtis Cup at all?
Kono: A little bit. I am excited to be with them, too. I have played with them a lot. It should be fun.
So you can put aside the Pacific-10 Conference rivalry for a few days this June?
Kono: For a few days, yeah. It’s after nationals (NCAA Championship), so it’s fine.
Getting that victory over a strong field had to boost your confidence.
Kono: That was probably my biggest [college win]. After coming back from my back injury, I was in contention every time and the last day, I just didn’t do so well. To be in contention going into the last round, and to be playing with such accomplished players, and pulling through was really big for me.
The Curtis Cup comes at a pretty hectic time for you. You have NCAAs and school is also wrapping up. How will you manage?
Kono: I’m going straight from the NCAAs to a team practice [at Essex County] right after that. Then I come back [to California] for U.S. [Women’s] Open qualifying and then go straight to Curtis Cup. I have to go to school, too. I can’t forget about that entirely. My last final is on June 7, but I have to be in Boston by June 6. So I am going to have to end [school] that first week of June. So very busy.
So what final is on June 7?
Kono: My philosophy final. I have [worked with the professor to take the final earlier]. I am taking classes that are pretty manageable this quarter. I have 15 units. It’s just three classes.
What classes are you taking?
Kono: I’m an art history major, so I have African art, philosophy and world art.
I know you have played a ton of USGA events. Have you hit 20 yet?
Kono: I don’t think I have hit 20, but I am close. I played in six U.S. Girls’ [Juniors]. It’s around six or seven Public Links. I played in the Open once. My [Women’s Open] qualifier this year is June 1 at Industry Hills.
Is there any aspect of your game that you are especially working on as you prepare for the college postseason and the Curtis Cup?
Kono: I am always working on my ball striking to get it a little sharper. I think I putted really well at this last event. I think it’s about the ball striking and really maintaining my short game.