Stephanie Kono (Honolulu, Hawaii) captured her first professional win on Sunday in the Donald Ross Classic at French Lick Resort with an overall score of 11-under par. The former three-time First Team All-American performer for UCLA moved up 79 spots in the Volvik Race for the Card to No. 6 following the victory, and also climbed 429 places to No. 381 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. Kono has a total of eight top-10 finishes in her career.
I started out 2018 with a new sense of optimism. Last year had not been the easiest for me; I had reinjured a disc in my back and was not able to play the final stretch of the season. I worked hard in the offseason on my health, as well as my golf game. My swing, which had been the strength of my game in college at UCLA, had let me down the last few years. It finally felt like it was clicking and I was very excited for the start of the season.
My first event was the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic in Winter Haven, Florida. Although I had a rough Sunday, the work I had put into my swing was starting to show. I felt the most comfortable I had over the ball in years. After another few weeks off, our second event was the IOA Championship presented by Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Beaumont, California. A couple days before the start of the tournament, I had terrible back spasms and couldn’t even drive myself back to my hotel. Needless to say, I had to withdraw from the tournament. For a few days, I was confined to my bed and had to plan how I could perform even the simplest of movements, such as rolling over or getting up to have a drink of water. As I laid in my hotel room in Beaumont with sharp pain, I felt enormous frustration as the fear of my hard work dissipating set in.
Thankfully, with some heavy medication and the help of amazing friends, I was able to get back to Florida and rehab my back once again. I eased back into swinging a club and miraculously felt a thousand times better after just a couple of weeks (instead of a couple of months like the previous times I had injured my back). Not only that, my swing actually felt better than before I left for California! I was so thankful because I felt like the work I had put in was still there.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic to be able to play again. However, it took a few tournaments for me to shake the rust off, as I had only played in the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic over the last six months at that point. Finally, competing in the Decatur Forsyth Classic, I was able to record fifteen birdies for the tournament. That gave me a huge amount of confidence and sparked the sense that my game was finally coming back to stay.
The week of the Donald Ross Classic started out like any other week. I mapped out the course, practiced my lag putts (the greens were crazy undulating), and had some downtime with my mom who came to watch me all the way from Hawaii. I knew it would be a fun week when I saw my pairing with Vicky Hurst, one of my oldest friends on Tour, and Laura Wearn, who is the nicest person and can also hit the ball a mile. After a solid two days of golf, I found myself in a position at the top of the leaderboard I had only experienced once before on the Symetra Tour.
On the morning of the final round, I was more excited than nervous. I couldn’t have even dreamed of having this opportunity in April when I was in that hotel room in Beaumont. I knew that no matter what happened, I would learn more about myself and that I had already done more than I thought I could in such a short amount of time since my latest injury. On the golf course, I had two goals the entire day: to play my own game and to have courage. Throughout the afternoon, I felt strangely calm and confident, when all I had expected was to be a nervous wreck. I played solid golf once again coupled with a lucky break or two, managing to break through for my first win.
Sometimes when I look back, I still can’t believe how confident I was the last day, or how I managed to win just three short months after my injury. All I can think of is how fortunate I am to be surrounded by the best team, friends and family. Having them around me and believing in me when I don’t always believe in myself, and to share in my success overwhelms me with gratitude and joy. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the season brings!