Lihu‘e’s Watabu catches fire

Lihu‘e’s Casey Watabu could be headed to the U.S. Open.

After birdies on nine of the last 11 holes to take a regional qualifier at Genoa Lakes Golf Club on Monday, the University of Nevada-Reno senior is peaking at just the right time.

The final hurdle to the U.S. Open is a June 5 sectional qualifier at Po‘ipu Bay, Watabu’s home course.

“The putter was working for me,” Watabu said. “I’m just on a high. I’m riding a wave of confidence right now. I hope it doesn’t stop.”

After going 3 over on the first six holes, Watabu caught fire to finish with a 6-under-par 66 in blustery conditions.

Watabu was one of four golfers in a field of 53 to advance to sectional qualifying.

More than 7,000 golfers are competing at local qualifying events. About 550 will advance to 16 sectional sites for a chance to play in next month’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.J.

But before Watabu can move on to sectional qualifying, he’ll have to deal with the NCAA championship at Crosswater Golf Club in Sunriver, Ore., from May 31 to June 3.

Watabu credited the influence of his caddy, fellow Wolf Pack teammate Matt Rippy, for helping him stay calm and focused.

Walking down the seventh fairway, already 3-over and facing a par putt from off the green, Rippy reminded him, “There’s a lot of holes left.”

Watabu sank the 20-footer for par, then chipped in for birdie on No. 8, starting a string of birdies that carried through the back nine.

After finishing tied for ninth place at the 2006 NCAA West Regional Saturday, the University of Nevada men’s gold team, led by Watabu, qualified for its first NCAA Championships since 1990. Nevada finished with a score of 282-287-282=851 (-13) and won its first-ever individual medalist honors at an NCAA Regional.

“We played solid today,” second-year coach Rich Merritt said. “Casey had a wonderful round.”

For the first time in his career, Watabu won individual medalist honors when he tied for first place on Saturday, shooting 70-69-64=203 (-13).

Watabu opened the tournament at a tie for 26th, then improved to 17th after day two and jumped to tie for first place with a final round 64 on Saturday. Watabu’s 64 is just one shot shy of the school record for a single round and is the first time Nevada has had an athlete win the individual championship at an NCAA Regional. The last time a Wolf Pack golfer won a tournament was 2001, when Sprague Kolp won the Wolf Pack Classic. Watabu tied with Florida’s Billy Horschel, who shot a final round 66.

“I hit the ball very well,” Watabu said. “I got a couple of lucky bounces on 17 and 18. I hit and putted the ball really good. Everything came together today.”

Nevada finished tied for ninth with Pepperdine, just sneaking into the top 10 and the NCAA Championships. Nevada has not competed in the NCAAs since 1990, when it finished 28th. The Pack’s best-ever national finish was 25th in 1989. Host Arizona tied Florida at a 37-under 827 to win the team honors, with Arizona State and Washington tying for third at a 24-under 840.

• Duane Shimogawa Jr., sports editor, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 257) or kauaisports@kauaipubco.com.

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