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By Jill Espiritu

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Feb. 27) - When junior golfer Young Na Lee picked up her first golf club in the fifth grade and started hitting golf balls, it used to be a joke that she'd advance to the professional level.

As her game started improving and she began to take the sport more seriously, reaching the professional level didn't seem far-fetched.

"I'll see how I do in college," Lee, 15, said. "I think to reach the professional level, I'll need to improve my mental game. Also I'll need to increase my distance. Oh, and I need to grow more."

Lee, who is coached by Mike Castro, has reached the top level of golf on Guam. She has participated in several junior golf tournaments off island, earned the ladies' No. 1 ranking on Guam by finishing first at the 2003 Nissan Guam Amateur Golf Championships, and was ranked No. 1 from Guam at the 2003 South Pacific Games in Suva, Fiji. Lee qualified to play on the Guam national golf team by winning the local SPG four-day selection tournament. She finished 28 strokes ahead of her closest competitor, 1999 SPG gold medalist Tessie Blair. The women's team earned a bronze medal at the SPG.

This weekend, Lee and Castro plan to watch a professional ladies tournament at the LeoPalace Resort Guam. Former local junior golf standout Towa Okiyama makes her return to the island after a seven-year absence to play in the tournament. Castro was one of Okiyama's coaches while she was playing golf on Guam. Okiyama is a semi-professional in Japan and needs to pass two more qualifying tournaments to turn professional.

"It's (tough)," Okiyama, 24, said. "In the position that I'm in, I'm not an amateur because I'm attempting to play professionally. It's a stage everyone in Japan goes through to become a professional. There are three stages; in the first stage, about 120 golfers from five different areas in Japan try and qualify to the next stage. Even before trying to qualify, you need to have a certain handicap. About 17 percent of people who enter make the cut.

In the second stage,15 to 17 percent of the golfers who pass the first stage advance to the third. In the end, it's about 100 people in the final tournament. From there, about 20 women become professionals in one calendar year. If you don't make it, you try again from the bottom next year."

Okiyama passed the first stage in November and will go through the second stage beginning in April. The final stage will take place in August, she said.

"It's different from the professional tour in the U.S.," Okiyama said. "In the States, you need to pass (qualifying) school and then you get a card to play tournaments. If you don't earn enough prize money at the tournaments, you get kicked off the tour. In Japan, once you become a professional, you're a professional forever. The thing is, if you don't do well, you might not be able to play in the tournaments at all.

"As a professional golfer in Japan, you can win as much as $100,000 in a tournament. This tournament here at the LeoPalace -- the winner will get $10,000, because it's like a smaller, local tournament. You have to be a professional to play in this tournament, or accompanying a professional to play. There are 100 women here," she added.

Although the process is tough, the goal of becoming a professional is attainable, Okiyama said. Okiyama started her golf career on Guam as a junior golfer and continued at the University of Kentucky. She has been living in Japan for almost two years to reach professional status in the country.

"In the end, you just have to play your own game," Okiyama said. "Golf is a game against the golf course and not against the other women. It's not like you can block someone's putt. In the end, it's whoever plays the best wins.

"You need to be able to focus. If you start thinking, oh that lady hits farther than me and I can't beat her, you'll start to forget what you're doing," she added.

The tournament begins at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Courses B and E at the LeoPalace. Although Course B is a new course, Okiyama played the E course as a junior golfer.

February 27, 2004

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com



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