Category Archives: Golf

CCC stands for ‘Country’s Club Champions’

Atty. Jovi Neri calls the Philippine Airlines (PAL) Interclub event that finished last weekend, “The biggest and most prestigious golf team tournament with a 65-year history and around 800 players joining.”

Cebu Country Club emerged victorious last weekend at the Apo Golf Club in Davao City. “Simply put,” explained Neri, “CCC has the best golf team in the country.”

Jovi has been part of the CCC squad since 2003. The past 10 years, they’ve won the Founders’ Division seven times. “We stuck with the same core team while others disbanded because their players turned professional. This moved us up to the Championship Division where we were 2nd last year in our first crack losing to the home team. Finally, this year and on neutral ground, we won.”

As head of the CCC Jungolf program, Neri is all-smiles. “I have received numerous congratulatory texts commending me on a job well done with the junior program because our top scorers were the juniors – Lj Go, Gen Nagai and Gio Gandionco. But I also want to put it on record that I, too, am a player and have a little game myself (hahaha!). Also, guys on the team such as myself, Mark Dy, and Marko Sarmiento come from an older generation of junior golfers and credit should go to the leaders of that era too – Vicky Moraza and Reny Sarmiento.”

Credit, of course, goes to all the team members. These include CCC president Montito Garcia, Eric Deen, Carl Almario and Bayani Garcia.

“The past winners of the PAL Interclub were ‘hired guns,’” said Neri. “Meaning provincial players recruited by Luzon courses to receive monthly allowances and playing privileges on the condition that they will represent their team in the PAL. With our win, we have shown that home-grown players who have a common origin in the junior golf program and have a genuine affiliation with our club rooted from childhood can win. This will not only inspire our team but others as well. Alta Vista and Alabang are among those fielding junior golfers.”

One of the secrets shared by Neri? Let the kids be kids and not give them unnecessary restrictions.

“Two days before we left for Davao, Lj, Gio, and Gen played badminton. During the tournament, we were hosted to a dinner in a house with a spacious lawn and the kids played volleyball and soccer. I don’t subscribe to some who say that other sports are bad for golf. The more active the lifestyle, the more athletic the player… that can only be good for golf. The kids also hit the gym regularly.”

Gio Gandionco, 16, the son of proud parents Opep and Cora, was the final player on the last day. On the 18th hole, he drained a six-foot birdie putt to score an impressive two-over-par 74 (34 points).

“Yes I was a little nervous,” said Gio, who’ll soon move to the U.S. on a college scholarship. “Being the last player has so much pressure, especially on the last hole when everyone is watching your every move. But, I thought, after all the experience I’ve been through, I can handle the pressure. Sinking my birdie putt on the last hole felt great. Even though that putt had not much bearing, I wanted to finish it with a birdie to prove that despite the pressure, I can make it.”

On pressure, Gio adds these tips: “I try to stay calm and breathe. Just take deep breaths, think positive and stay in the present. I try not to think too much and just go over my routine. The only thing in my head is imagining myself hitting the best shot and seeing the ball go where I want it to go.”

Next year? The PAL Interclub will fly back to Cebu. Our last hosting was back in 2001. “This will be a joint exercise with all four clubs – CCC, Club Filipino, Alta Vista and Mactan,” said Neri. “Two clubs will host the seniors event the week before and, the other two, the regular event. We are privileged to have a captain like Montito Garcia who has friends all over, so whenever we travel there are people always inviting us out. Now that we will be hosting it, we look forward to giving back the hospitality. As a team, this win will motivate us to practice earlier and harder than ever.”

Ateneo Seeks 4th Straight Win Vs LaSalle in Golfest

Written by Atty. Jovi Neri

With the Ateneo community still on a high from their epic UAAP basketball win, they now look to add icing to their celebrations with a win against arch-rival LaSalle in the 10th Ateneo LaSalle Golf Classic to be held on Saturday, October 8 in the Club Filipino Golf Course in Danao City.

The participants who hail from either Jesuit or Christian Brothers’ schools are automatically part of the team event, with the players winning points for their respective schools based on their performance in their classes.

The classes based on handicaps are: A (0-11), B (12-18), C (19-up), and Open for those without certified handicaps.  Each class, except for the Open, will have a lowest gross winner who will earn 10 points for the school. There will also be 3 net winners per class winning 8, 6, and 4 points for their schools.  The winners of the Open Class will be determined by the System 36 format.

A total of 102 points will be at stake and the school that scores 52 or more wins the cup.  Ateneo is gunning for their third straight win after dropping their only meet with LaSalle in 2008.  Ateneo has traditionally had the stronger team thanks to the population of the Sacred Heart Jesuit alumni who are mostly Cebu-based and by default play for Ateneo.

However, this year will be an intriguing matchup since the tournament is having a new venue so there is less familiarity with the course.  Officials of both sides have been frantically calling alumni to participate to increase their chances of victory.

Apart from the two schools going at it, there is also a guest division instituted for the first time this year.  Those who did not hail from either school are still invited to join where there will be lowest gross and also multiple net winners for their class.

The tournament is presented by Cebu Landmasters Corporation. Other sponsors are: Smart Communications, Monterazzas De Cebu, Hapee, Skygo,  Radisson Blu, Plantation Bay,  Darras+Bowler Wines, Chika-an Sa Cebu, Havianas, Barbecue Joe, Papa John’s Pizza, Prince Warehouse Club, Sunstar, Freeman, and Redgolf.

Registration fee is P1,500 which includes giveaways, raffle coupon, and awarding buffet.  Interested parties may contact the Club Filipino office 2311676 to register.

Golf and LJ Go

Golf is difficult. Look at Tiger Woods. His knee is damaged, he’s world-ranked a lowly 49, his last title was 22 months ago and, at last month’s PGA Championships, he shot a 7-over 77. TW missed the cut.

LJ Go? He’s a cut above the rest. Spelled in full, his name is Lloyd Jefferson Go. You’d know he excels in one sport just by studying the initials of his name:

GO, LJ. G-O L-F. The two are nearly identical. It’s no coincidence that this 16-year-old Cebu Country Club (CCC) resident is one of the country’s most promising golfers.

Last Thursday, Atty. Jovi Neri chronicled LJ’s spectacular 2011 season. Many experts, including Jovi, the head of the CCC Jungolf Program and a former CCC champion, consider LJ “as the most talented junior to emerge from Cebu Country Club.” Possibly, ever. Among LJ’s records: two junior championships, twice shooting the junior competitive course record of 69, a men’s club championship top seeding, and twice top-scoring for the men’s PAL team.

Here’s more… Last summer, after a string of successful tournaments in the U.S., LJ returned to Cebu all-confident. In Club Filipino’s President’s Cup, he shot a 68 and went home to his parents, Charlie and Lily, carrying the trophy. Next, he led his team to the overall crown of the Cheling Garcia Memorial.

“LJ’s impressive performance in America earned him the attention of NGAP (National Golf Association of the Phils.) director Tommy Manotoc, a legendary sportsman in his own right,” said Jovi Neri. “Manotoc personally selected LJ to play for the Philippine Men’s Team in the Putra Cup when Marcel Puyat had to beg off as he was entering Stanford under a scholarship.”

The 51-year-old Putra Cup is the Southeast Asia Amateur Golf Team Championship. “LJ was a 16-year-old junior playing for the Men’s Team in an international team event,” said Jovi. “No one can remember the last time a Cebuano was in the men’s team, definitely not in the last two decades and not as young as him.”

LJ also joined the Taiwan Men’s Amateur and came within a stroke of being the best Filipino campaigner. The Putra Cup, which finished weeks ago in Hong Kong? “His third round 70 was the best by any Filipino and his total was 2nd best among eight Filipinos – men’s and juniors – who played the course from the same tees,” said Atty. Neri.

What’s amazing is this: He is a national-caliber virtuoso who has chosen to stay sa probinsya. “LJ’s teammates in the men’s team have all come from national training programs funded by ICTSI,” said Neri. “LJ has never moved to Manila. He trains on his own in Cebu. His enjoyment of his student life in Cebu is the reason why he never traded it for home-schooling or transferring to Manila for training. He is an inspiration to young provincial kids who want to excel without leaving home.”

LJ first swung a 7-iron at the age of 7. He started under the tutelage of Raul Sorino, one of the instructors of the CCC Jungolf Program, then moved to his longest-serving mentor, Victor Macutay. Today, his coach is Andrew Ong.

A high school senior in Centre for International Education (CIE), LJ aspires to be a U.S. collegiate scholar. Adds Jovi: “Outside of the golf course, he lives an ordinary student life. But in the course, he is anything but ordinary. His exponential rise over the past few months—from a talented club junior golfer to a men’s national team top scorer—is nothing short of remarkable.”

How remarkable? Here’s a story supplied by Jovi Neri: “Last Sunday, I joined LJ’s flight with Gen Nagai, Gio Gandionco and Liloan Mayor Duke Frasco. In the front nine, he was out of his element hitting tops and shanks to find water on three straight holes. He even had a four-putt green and shot an ugly 8-over par 44.

“LJ picked it up in the back nine with five birdies and one eagle. He finished eagle-birdie-birdie, and won the September Junior Monthly Medal by count back (tie-break). His score (6-under par 30) is the lowest in nine holes I have ever witnessed in my 20 years of playing CCC.”

LJ Go’s breakout year, by Jovi Neri

“Many have said that Lloyd Jefferson ‘LJ’ Go is the most talented junior ever to emerge from Cebu Country Club,” said Atty. Jovi Neri, one of the most avid of Cebuano golfers and himself a columnist in the Inquirer Golf magazine.

Atty. Neri wrote a full-length chronicle of LJ’s phenomenal 2011 season. Here’s the rest of Jovi’s story….

“LJ’s achievements were spectacular in the club level: two junior championships, twice shooting the junior competitive course record of 69, a men’s club championship top seeding, and twice top-scoring for the men’s PAL team.

“But his results in the national level were not reflective of his talent until this year, when he emerged not just among the top juniors but as one of the top men’s amateur golfers who can compete internationally.

“During the summer he took in a new coach, Andrew Ong. This gave him renewed motivation which he channeled into increased drive and work ethic. As changes take a while for results to come, all it took LJ was an incredible round one April afternoon.

“Plodding along in the middle of the field in the Junior World qualifier in Manila Southwoods, LJ came out of nowhere to shoot a spectacular final round 72 to jump five places and steal the final slot for the Junior World Championships in San Diego via sudden death over Gus Mata.

“The next week, LJ got his first champion trophy in Luzon with a nail-biting win in the Faldo Series Phils. Championship in Tat Filipinas Golf Club. He then headed to play the Phil. Junior Amateur – a major championship for juniors.

“Playing in Alabang Country Club, he scored two major upsets – starting with home-course hero Basti Lorenzo, then pre-tournament favorite Miggy Yee. In the semis, he faced Junior World Champion Rupert Zaragosa and was on the cusp of victory, 1-up with two holes to play, but lost. Zaragosa went on to win the championship.

“The following week in the Philippine Men’s Amateur Match Play, LJ did not play as he was preparing for his US trip. The eventually winner was Zaragosa but two of the semifinalists were Mata, whom he beat in Southwoods, and Yee, whom he upset in Alabang.

“Now it was off to America where LJ competed in the AJGA (American Junior Golf Association), regarded as the PGA Tour of junior golf. LJ flew to the USA with no assured slot in any AJGA event. He would have to play qualifying rounds where up to 75 golfers compete for 3 slots. He had to endure a 14-hour trip to Los Angeles followed by an 8-hour drive to Phoenix to play his first qualifying.

“Defying all the odds, fatigue, and jet lag, LJ teed it up in Moon Valley Golf Club – the course where Annika Sorenstam shot her historic 59 – and earned the last spot in the tournament via playoff. LJ shot rounds of 78-75-78 in his first AJGA tournament — respectable and good enough to win junior tournaments locally.  But there, he found himself tied for 55th — or 3rd to the last. It was a rude awakening.

“When he could have easily given up, LJ continued to grind it out and earned spots to more AJGA events. After Arizona, he played events in Nevada and California.

“In the Junior World Championships in San Diego, LJ opened with a 74 in Torrey Pines South, a course that hosted the ‘08 US Open, which was Tiger Woods’ last major win. It was the best score turned in by a Filipino all week and the best score by a Cebuano ever in that tough course.

“In PGA West Stadium – a course where Nicklaus and other golf superstars had competed in past Skins Games – LJ was the only one who played under par through two rounds and finished in the top 5.

“His final tournament – the Emerson Junior Classic – turned out to be his best. He closed with a 3-under par 69, the best score of the final round which earned him a special recognition. He finished 3rd place and earned enough points to jump 1000 places and move within earshot of being among the top 200 juniors in America – not bad considering he is a non-resident rookie playing limited events in his first season.”

The Cup of Golf and the Davis Cup

One is an international event while the other is an event between nations. They’re the same. One uses a white synthetic ball while the other, a yellow fuzzy ball. They’re the same.

The Aboitiz Invitational 2011 is the most prestigious golf event to land in Cebu. It’s happening today. Yesterday. Tomorrow. And Saturday.

The Davis Cup 2011 is the most illustrious tennis event to bounce in Cebu. It’s not happening yet. The dates are September 16 to 18.

Today happens to be the very first ‘BER day of the year—we’re SeptemBER 1—and the Davis Cup is only 15 days away.

Isn’t our island lucky? The four-day golf-fest now being played at Cebu Country Club could easily have been situated in Davao’s Apo Golf or Laguna’s Caliraya Springs or Manila’s Canlubang. But it’s here. Right across the “soon-to-open” Ciudad. Cebu is blessed. We, Cebuanos, are blessed. Same with the sport that’s being played in Flushing Meadows, New York. It’s called tennis.

The Davis Cup clash between the Philippines and Chinese Taipei could easily have been held at the Rizal Memorial courts in Manila or the Philippine Columbian Association (PCA) indoor facility. But, no. The venue is here. Like golf. It’s at the Plantation Bay Resort and Spa. The island… ah, Cebu. My point is this: Let’s watch!!

These twin tournaments just two weeks apart are the paramount sporting marvels of this Year of the Cat.

With the Aboitiz Invitational, I watched for nearly 60 minutes yesterday—thanks to the personal tour by Atty. Jovi Neri, a 4-handicapper whose best score in CCC is an astonishing 67. Jovi drove the golf cart of Clifford Celdran. We followed Elmer Salvador, whose 1-over final score was the best by noontime.

Chuckie Hong? Playing his first pro tournament on his Cebu home court, I watched him wear a REDGOLF cap and drive that first drive on Hole No. 10. A friend to all the caddies and local CCC boys, he received the loudest applause.

(Sun.Star photo)

Miguel Tabuena was impressive. Only 16 years old, the “Boy Wonder of Golf” flew in from Taiwan a couple of days ago. We shook hands. “The last time I played on this course,” said the 2010 Asian Games silver medalist, “was when I was only nine years old.” Mig shot a 2-over. I left at noon and, by then, the scores were high. One pro logged a 9-over.

The reason for the high scores: “The greens were very, very hard.” Those words were uttered by Miguel T., about the same age as our top guns named LJ Go and Gio Gandionco.

What I found unusual yesterday was that very few people watched. Entering CCC around 11:15 A.M., I expected to find difficulty parking. Only a dozen cars were parked. This is perplexing. Or, maybe not. Because while the distinguished and exalted of golfers are joining, there’s no Phil M. or TW1 or even a Keegan Bradley, the PGA Championship winner. Also, yesterday was a Wednesday—the first working day after a four-day-long weekend. Everybody’s busy; at work.

Still, I hope more people watch. Today. Tomorrow. Especially on the finale, on Saturday. Be you a golfer or a non-golfer, the perfect mix of blue skies with putting greens and multi-colored Asian and European and American golfers ought to make you visit the Country Club.

Back to the Davis Cup tennis: This is another not-to-be-missed contest. Our players are: Cecil Mamiit, previously ranked as high as world No. 72 and was the “sparring” (or make that “hitting”) partner of Maria Sharapova; there’s Treat Huey, world-ranked No. 71 in doubles; and two newcomers: Jeson Patrombon and Ruben Gonzales.

Chinese Taipei? Team Taiwan is led by Lu Yen-Hsun. Currently No. 82, he was once ranked as high as world No. 33. If he comes to Lapu-Lapu City… Oh, no… it will be tough. (Update: In his first round U.S. Open match yesterday, he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. This means he might come to Cebu!).

Davis Cup tickets, priced at only P200/day or P500 for three days, are now available at Chris Sports SM or Ayala. Get your DC tickets now.

Aboitiz Invitational goes International

Montito Garcia, the most celebrated amateur golfer of our island and the current president of the Cebu Country Club, had this to say in our phone conversation yesterday: “The Aboitiz Invitational is the biggest ever golf tournament that CCC has hosted. In terms of prize money (about P2,500,000), in the number of international players that are joining (80 golfers from the Asian Development Tour and 40 from the Philippine Golf Tour)… we’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

True. How about the golf course? Its condition given that rains have engulfed our island? “Cebu Country Club is ready,” Montito said. “Although there’s been too much rain the past weeks, that’s the beauty of golf. Everybody plays in the same conditions. And, with the high caliber of these international players, you can put them in a carabao course and they’ll still excel.”

Today, the celebration begins. It’s the Pro-Am Day of the Aboitiz Invitational 2011, when three amateurs mix with one professional in one flight. It’s a chance for an Atty. Jovi Neri to be in the same flight with pro Robert Pactolerin. Completing their foursome are Jovi’s dad, Atty. Julius Neri, and Mark Dy.

Today is an opportunity for Cebuanos to spend hours on the course with a pro; an occasion for the professional to do a relaxed practice round around CCC. Tomorrow, the combat begins. It’s the start of the four-day tournament. Will our top local, Artemio Murakami, make our nation proud by winning the Cebu leg?

Last week, Murakami was ranked No. 3 in the ADT money list. This ranking is important. The top three earners will get automatic spots in the Asian Tour. The bad news is, after last weekend’s Ballantine’s Taiwan Championship, Murakami has slipped to a No. 5 ranking. If he wins—or does well—starting tomorrow until Saturday here in Cebu, he can regain that Top 3 spot. But it will be tough. There are 126 players expected to join. A total of 19 countries are represented.

What makes this event so huge is this: The very first Philippine stop of the Asian Development Tour (ADT) is not in Manila. It’s not in Tagaytay. It’s not in Wack Wack or Valley Golf or Riviera. It’s in the City of Cebu. The 2011 schedule started last February in Bangladesh. Then it moved to various courses around Malaysia and Chinese Taipei. It’s 7th stop? On our Philippine archipelago?

The par-70 golf course located in Banilad. Par 70? Isn’t the CCC a Par 72 course? Yes and Yes. “The Par 70 will only be for the Aboitiz Invitational,” answered marathoner Frederic Chiongbian, the CCC golf chairman. “Two par 5 holes, number 7 and number 11, will be played as par 4’s during the tournament. After, the course will retain its par 72 rating.”

Starting last April, a lot of work has been done to improve the course. “We’re slowly re-doing some areas of the course (e.g. tee mounds, drainage, tree pruning, bunkers),” added Chiongbian.

To comply with ADT standards, the course is now more difficult: the fairways, narrower; the roughs, tougher; the greens, faster.

All credit goes to the Aboitiz family, whose Aboitiz Equity Ventures headquarters sits right beside Cebu Country Club. No doubt, this is one of the year’s most illustrious of sporting events.

In an email he sent me two nights ago, Basti Lacson, the lead advocate of this event representing Aboitiz, acknowledges the importance of the partnership between ADT, the PGT, sponsor ICTSI and Aboitiz Equity Ventures.

Basti also named four Pinoys—Murakami, Elmer Salvador, Juvic Pagunsan and Miguel Tabuena—as contenders to win the $11,000 first prize.

As to the general public? Let’s watch! “The course is open for the public to watch, starting tomorrow until Saturday, Sept. 3,” said Basti Lacson.

Added Montito Garcia: “We are not charging anything. This is a great opportunity to see some of the best in Asia. And, who knows, a few of these stars will next join the European and U.S. Tours and become Top 10 world-ranked players. It’s our chance to watch them. Right here in Cebu.”

Rudy Labares, 66

One of the best ever in Philippine golf quietly passed away Tuesday last week. Only 66 years old, Rudolfo “Rudy” Labares succumbed to liver cancer.

I requested Atty. Jovi Neri, the former Cebu Country Club club champion and a dear friend of the Cebuano ace, to write a story about the man who called CCC his home. Here’s Atty. Neri’s full piece:

“Rudy Labares was voted one of the top 10 all-time greatest Filipino golfers in a poll conducted five years ago and rightfully so. Locally, in the 1980s, he set a Philippine Tour record of 7 wins in one season, which at that time surpassed Frankie Minoza’s 6 wins.

“Another record he still owns is the tournament record in relation to par in the Philippine Open where he shot 16-under par in Villamor Golf Club in his 1984 win. At age 46, he was the oldest player in the modern era to win the Philippine Tour order of merit crown in 1991.

“His international achievements are legendary. He led the Philippines to its best-ever finish of 2nd place in the World Cup of Golf in 1977, finished second to the Seve Ballesteros-led Spain. He also finished second in the individual honors to all-time great Gary Player – one of only five players to win all four professional majors.

“Labares’ most cherished win was the Rolex Masters Singapore, which at that time was one of the majors in the Asian Tour. Since he was the Order of Merit leader in the local tour even in his 40’s, he was chosen twice to the Philippine team to play in the Dunhill Cup in the home of golf in St. Andrews Scotland.

“Against Spain, he was pitted against two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal. Against USA, he played Chip Beck, who was only the second player even in PGA Tour history to card a 59.

“Labares was a soft-spoken individual who quietly went about his business with little fanfare. This may be the reason why, in spite of his achievements in a career where he competed against the likes of Celestino Tugot… then Ben Arda… then Frankie Minoza… and even against some of the current crop of pros still active like Carito Villaroman and Cassius Casas, he has relatively slipped under the radar when the all-time greats of the Philippines are mentioned. But his accomplishments on the golf course are right up there, and even better, than some who are more highly-regarded or oft-mentioned.

“Throughout his career, Labares has always called Cebu Country Club his home and never permanently settled outside Cebu. He has always practiced and worked on his game in Cebu. It is for this reason, he should be easily regarded as one of the best Cebuano professional athletes of all-time.”

Thanks to Jovi for the mini-biography on Labares. A full-length chronicle will be published soon in Jovi’s column with the Inquirer Monthly Golf magazine.

NIMROD. Another golf devotee I contacted was Nimrod Quiñones, the Managing Editor of The Freeman. I owe Nimrod a lot. He was the person who invited me to write a sports column. This was in 1994.

Nimrod interviewed Mr. Labares last month. In his Full Point column for The Freeman dated July 14 and titled “A chat with a living legend,” Nimrod wrote: “I had the chance to talk with the living legend yesterday at the Cebu Country Club in connection with Full Point: The Cebu Sports Show, which airs over Wealth TV Channel 28 on SkyCable and Destiny Cable.”

Added Nimrod: “(Rudy) started as a ball boy at the age of 10 and five years later became a caddie. In another five years, Labares, who spent a lot of time honing his skills, was already competing and winning tournaments. One thing that struck me during our interview was when he said that he used to practice from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Many of us can’t even spend an hour on the driving range and hope to finish playing as fast as we could, but not Rudy.”

The Rudy Labares TV interview will be aired possibly later this week, said Nimrod. I’m sure this will be a stirring and poignant interview. Let’s watch it.

Cebu’s golf ace Irina Gabasa joins Vanderbilt U

(Photo by Manny Marcelo)

Back in 1873, one of America’s richest men, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and shipping magnate, decided to build a school. He named it Vanderbilt University. Today, it ranks as one of the best in the United States.

Irina Gabasa is going to Vanderbilt. On full scholarship. Thanks to golf.

Only 16 years old, Irina won the Philippine Amateur Golf Championship last year. Because of that heavyweight victory, the petite junior golfer who trains at the Alta Vista Golf & Country Club impressed a field of international coaches.
She received emails. Phone calls were logged. The A-list of American coaches wanted to know: Who is this golf phenomenon and where is she from, Cebu City, Phils?

At 11 P.M. tonight, Ms. Gabasa, together with her parents, Deo and Rowena, head for the Mactan airport, ready to fly to the land of Barack Obama.

“I’m excited and nervous,” said Irina, dark-tanned from all the sun exposure yet whose smile and pretty face forever radiate. “College will definitely be a new experience.”

She finished pre-school, elementary and high school at Bright Academy. I’m proud to say that my mom, Allen, founded and continues to run the school and that our family owns it.

Before choosing Vanderbilt, Irina was toured all over the mainland and courted by many of the top schools. Among those who offered scholarships were Univ. of Miami, Pepperdine Univ., Univ. of Georgia, Texas Christian University, Baylor Univ., Coastal Carolina, and Southern Methodist Univ.

But, after months of studying, visiting and, above all, praying, Team Gabasa picked the Nashville, Tennessee campus whose student population is 12,714.

“I chose Vanderbilt University because of its balance in Sports and Education,” said Irina, via email, two nights ago. “Not only is it a top 20 NCAA Division 1 golf team but it’s also part of the 20 best Universities in the U.S. Others call Vanderbilt the Ivy League of the South. Also, because of the coaches. They are great and can help me grow into a better golfer and person.”

As good timing for Irina’s choice, Vanderbilt will be hosting the National Championships this year in their home club.

Upon arrival this Wednesday at Vanderbilt, Irina will be welcomed like a sports star. She receives a full scholarship that includes free board and lodging, tuition, books, equipment. “Even our golf shoes are customized,” said Irina. “Via the website, they asked me to pick the designs and colors that I wanted.”

The Vanderbilt Women’s Golf team is composed of seven players. Five are returnees and only two are freshmen; Irina is the only one from Asia.

When did Irina begin to play this game of Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa? “I started at the age of seven,” she said. “My dad introduced me to the sport. I started playing competitively at the age of nine. I’ve never really had a constant coach aside from my dad. Whenever I have a coach, my dad is always there to implement whatever I learned.”

You can say “Like Father, Like Daughter.”

Irina with her parents, Deo and Rowena, and Mike Limpag, sports editor of SunStar Cebu

This 2011, she is ranked the # 17 junior in the whole of the United States. Wow!

Just two months ago, in a tour of the U.S. that was billed for Irina as a “college audition,” she joined the 30th Bubba Conlee National Junior Tournament, one of the most prestigious in the Mid-South.

Calmly, Irina birdied three of the final nine holes to finish with a 3-under 69. Her 54-hole total: 4-under 212. Irina won by two shots.

“It was a great achievement,” she said. “Through that victory, I was given the opportunity to play in AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) Invitational tournaments. This included the Rolex Tournament of Champions, Ping Invitational and The Thunderbird International Junior Championship.”

A Sportswriters Association of Cebu (SAC)-SMC Cebu Sports Awards major awardee from 2008 to 2011, Irina Gabasa is leaving Cebu tonight to conquer America tomorrow.

In a sport where six of the world’s Top 10 women golfers are Asian, who knows… the words “Filipina” and “from Cebu” might reach the leader-board.

Good luck, Irina!

Gio Gandioco’s dream: ‘Be like Rory’

Tiger Woods is outdated and passé. Today’s young golfers want to be like the 22-year-old Irish champion of the United States Open.

Take the son of Opep and Cora Gandionco. Only 16 years old, he possesses the confidence and maturity of Rory McIlroy.

Angelo Jose “Gio” Gandionco explained: “Rory inspired me to do better and to challenge myself; if Rory can do it, why can’t I? It may be tough to be the best or even get in the PGA Tour but if you have the will and desire, you can achieve it. Rory winning made me realize that it’s possible to win one of the biggest tournaments and beat the best. Like now, I’m touring America playing tournaments and I’m up against the best juniors. I know if I play my game I can beat them like Rory. If I focus on what I’m supposed to do and not get intimidated, I can win.”

Spunk, spirit, and self-assurance. That’s Gio.

From the U.S., he emailed last week. “I just finished my first tournament this second trip here,” said Gio. “It’s the AJGA (American Junior Golf Association) Club Corp Mission Hills Desert Junior in Rancho Mirage (Palm Springs), California. Despite jet lag since I just arrived three days earlier and playing in 114-deg, I finished 2nd with a score of 71-73-72, which is my best finish so far here. Most of the other players were from California, LJ Go (from Cebu) also played.”

Gio, third from right, winning 2nd place

Gio, a 2-handicapper who also idolizes Rickie Fowler (“He stands out with his fashion statement”), travels next to Pinehurst, North Carolina and Huntsville, Alabama. He then returns home to Cebu, where he is a 4th year high school student at PAREF-Springdale (and a five-time Student-Athlete Of The Year).

“Last April,” he added, “my mom’s family had a reunion in Hawaii so we went on to Texas to join a tournament at the Texas A&M University. I finished 14th (that was a highly-ranked junior tourn) and, at the PGA Golf Club in Florida, I finished Top 10. Here in the U.S., there are 5,000 junior golf players… so I think I have been doing well.”

Gio started golf at the age of four. He used Little Tikes plastic golf clubs and his dad, Opep, who heads the family-owned giant Julie’s Bakeshop, was the person who taught his son how to swing.

By age 7, Gio joined golf events. But, he also had a similar interest in the Azkals game of football. He was Springdale’s striker. Finally, he had to choose. “When my soccer tournaments and golf coach schedules competed for my time,” he said, “I knew I had to make a choice. Although I enjoyed the team play in soccer with my friends, I knew it was Golf I really loved! So at 11, I started to seriously work on my game.”

Mixing academics and sport has not been easy. “My schedule is very hectic,” said Gio, an honor student who consistently averages 90+. “But, I always try to put time for both practicing and studying. During schooldays, I get dismissed 4:30pm so I head to either the range or the golf course on MWF. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I work out in the gym. I get home 6:30pm, study, eat, sleep. It is not easy being a student-athlete; you have to learn how to manage your time well. Even while I’m away for a tournament, I still have to read books and do homework to prepare for tests.”

Gio’s dream? To play in the PGA Tour. But first, he says, “My goal in the medium term is to get a scholarship at a prestigious U.S. university. I would like to play college golf, at the same time graduate with a degree in Business.”

His best score? A 5-under par in a Men’s Amateur tournament late last year. “Although I am still working on my game,” he says, “my short game has always been my strength. Every aspect of my game is still a work-in-progress, and I am open to learning and improving.”

As to the aspects of golf that he enjoys most, he answers, “I love every part of the game: the pressure, the challenge, the intimidation, the hard work, the difficulties that come everyday and, most of all, the feeling of knowing you’re improving.”

Only 16, Gio sounds like a very, very mature person. Just like Rory.

Tiger who? Rory roars at the 111th U.S. Open

Eric Deen, the five-time Cebu Country Club champion, sent me this SMS yesterday: “Rory winning after his meltdown at The Masters will make him the new Tiger Woods. Being the youngest ever, beating Nicklaus’ record, will elevate him to superstar status. Inspiring for the game of golf.”

Eric is right. Just last April 10, heading into the final Sunday, Rory McIlroy led the entire field at The Masters by four strokes. But, instead of cruising to victory, he disintegrated. McIlroy shot an embarrassing 80. It was one of the most painful breakdowns in golf.

You know what his reaction was? The day after that collapse? It spoke of his mental fortitude. He sent this Twitter message, quoting Muhammad Ali: “It’s repetition of affirmations that leads to belief — and once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”

McIlroy’s response, after leading the entire Augusta National tournament and being just nine holes away from triumph, is a lifelong lesson for you, for me, and for everybody else who’s alive on this planet. It says, I have suffered defeat… but I am not defeated.

Two days ago, what supremacy and domination. His achievement created several records, 12 U.S. Open records, to be exact, among them:

McIlroy is the second-youngest player to win a major since World War II. (The record-holder? A 21-year-old T.W. at the ’97 Masters.)

At 22, he is the youngest to win the U.S. Open since Bobby Jones in 1923.

Rory is the seventh wire-to-wire winner in U.S. Open history and the first since Tiger in 2002. His margin of victory (eight strokes) is the third largest ever of the U.S. Open and tied for the sixth largest at any major.

McIlroy, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 160 lbs., continues a new “youth movement” in golf. Consider that each of the last four majors has been won by a player in his 20s. His win also marks the 11th different winner in as many majors; eight of whom are first-time champions.

I watched ESPN early yesterday morning. I saw the final six holes. What’s fun with Rory is that. . . he’s fun. He bounces when he walks. He smiles more than Y.E. Yang. He’s charismatic. He has fuzzy hair. He’s in a hurry, always. He doesn’t even take a practice swing! Unbelievable. Whether it’s to putt an 18-footer for birdie or to smash that tee shot using his Titleist 910D2 driver, he simply points his eyes toward the target, stands squarely in front of the ball, then, boom, smothers that Titleist Pro V1x ball.

Best of all, Roarin’ Rory has that inborn, inward, incredible confidence. “I like his moxie,” said one golfer who’s accumulated 18 major trophies. “I suppose that is the right word. I like the way he carries himself — his moxie.”

That’s Jack Nicklaus speaking and, when I researched on “moxie,” it captures the true meaning of Boy Wonder. Moxie means possessing the “audacity, courage, braveness, spirit, daring, gutsiness.” It means having “spunk, drive, boldness.” Perfect description, Jack.

Now, with Tiger Woods injured and celebrating Father’s Day at home with his daughter Sam Alexis and son Charlie Axel, it’s just fitting that somebody else replace him.

“If you’re going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record,” said Padraig Harrington, “He’s your man. When you are winning majors at 22, with his talent, and he’s got 20-something more years to play majors, and another 100 majors in him, I would give him a great chance to catch Jack.”

Ouch, Tiger. Move over. At 35 years old and not having won a major since November 2009, his instinct is getting extinct. McIlroy, who idolized Woods, has a similar childhood pedigree: his father, Gerry, taught him golf at age 4, when he hit a drive of 40 yards; by 7, he was a club member, and, by 15, Rory qualified for his first pro tournament.

“The thing about these major championships is the history and the prestige,” said McIlroy. “Just being able to add your name to a list like Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer — that is the most satisfying thing about it.”

Eric Deen wins his 5th Cebu Country Club title

Eric with his dad, Danny

The golf champion from 1997 to 1999 and, again, in 2004, it’s been many summers since he last won the Club Championship trophy of the Cebu Country Club.

Yesterday, playing another former titlist — Jovi Neri, who won the 2001 edition — he finally won again after playing 18 holes in the morning and 17 holes in the afternoon.

“That was tiresome!” said Eric Deen, seconds after receiving a congratulatory hug from his family members that included his dad (and former club champion) Atty. Danny Deen, and his sisters Jackie Lotzof and Vanessa Deen.

Jackie, Danny, Eric, Vanessa and James

It was Eric’s fifth Men’s Club Championship victory. Dating back to 1965 when Luis Ugarte won one of Cebu’s most revered of amateur golf titles, Eric’s Victory No. 5 elevates him to second in the all-time winners list: he and Carl Almario have five apiece while Montito Garcia — the new CCC president — has eight trophies.

Yesterday afternoon, thanks to Charlie Michael, who helped drive the golf cart, I was able to watch the back nine starting with Hole No. 13. At that point, Eric was leading 1-up and, after Jovi landed in the sand trap after his second shot, it was Eric who won that hole and led, 2-up, with five holes to go.

Eric and Jovi, from Holes 14 to 17, were both steady. They parred each hole. The crucial moment came in Hole # 14 when, after his tee shot, Eric drove left and landed far from the green. He was under a shade of trees. But, the ultra-relaxed player that he is (you’d never know, from watching, that he was in the final of a major tournament), Eric punched his second shot as the ball flew, hit a few branch leaves, then safely landed on the green. Par.

This 2011 (though the CCC Club championship, oddly, is called the 2010 edition), Eric Deen had no par. He was unbeatable. In his first round, he bested Macky Michael (my best friend on the tennis court), 5 and 4. In Round 2, he beat Jon Joseph Alvarez, 4 and 2. Then, in probably the most thrilling of all the week’s encounters, Mark Dy led Eric Deen in the semi-finals one-up with two holes to play. Sadly for Mark, he bogeyed the final two holes and lost, 1-up. At 4:30 p.m. yesterday on Hole # 17, Eric received a resounding applause when he won 2 and 1 against Jovi.

Bayani Garcia, Vicky Moraza and The Champ

In the Class B division, Evans Tumaliwan won after beating Kiddy Limchao, Jr., 1-up. In the Class C category (perfect because of the way his family name sounds), it was champion Andrew Si. He beat Henry Dy. In the Class D, it was Naotsugu Isobe besting Rhoudie Tiu. The CCC Senior champion was Koichi Horii. And, on the opposite end, the Women’s Champion was Abby Olea.

Schwartzel who? No Tiger roar from Rory

A non-golfer, I woke up early yesterday. Like a golfer. You see, if you play this sport of hazards, hooks, hole-in-ones and handicaps, you’d have awoken early the past four mornings. Nilo Domingo, the best golfer from our Rotary Club of Cebu West (handicap: 9), had wide-open eyes yesterday from 1 to 7 a.m. He watched The Masters. Like most golfers. It was the 75th anniversary of the greenest of all greens. And, it might have been the most tumultuous finale at Augusta.

“This Masters had the most topsy-turvy leaderboard with perhaps the most lead changes ever,” said Jovi Neri, one of Cebu’s best. “This is probably what makes it unique, but all the Masters are always exciting.”

A lawyer by profession and golfer by obsession, Jovi Neri, the 2002 Cebu Country Club champion, analyzes golf as accurately as his tee shot.

The champion? Rory McIlroy! Was he? No. Supposed to be. Yes. It was Tiger Woods. A four-time winner of the green jacket, he led the field with only nine holes to play. At that late stage, TW1 is unbeatable. He won. No? He lost. Was it K.J. Choi, whom Koreans in Cebu cheered wildly while watching Samsung TV? He came close. But, no, he did not win. How about a trio of Aussies, Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy, and Jason Day? They were close — but preserved the tradition which states, “No Australian will win The Masters.”

The champion? Charl Schwartzel, a player I had never heard of before. Was he German? A famous brand of sausage? Why was his name pronounced “Sharl?” “The last time a winner finished four under over his last four holes was 25 years ago when a certain Jack Nicklaus won his 6th green jacket at age 46, and defied father time. What a way for Schwartzel to commemorate that historic `86 Masters with his own version of a strong finish,” said Jovi Neri.

(The Canadian Press)

Early yesterday, I watched those final four holes. It was dramatic. You didn’t know who’d win. Would Tiger’s 10-under be enough for a play-off spot? Then, all of a sudden, this South African ranked 26th in the world made birdie after birdie after birdie after birdie.

A Filipino almost won. A Fil-Aus, to be exact. As we’ve been accustomed to seeing Fil-Europeans banner the Azkals, here’s a top-notch half-Filipino who’s day, surely, will soon come. Atty. Neri explained: “Before his PGA Tour stint, Jason Day played in the Nationwide Tour (their developmental tour) and in `07 was the younger ever winner in that tour.  He is only of the most promising young players but his rise should in no way be connected with the golf development programs our country has.  If you check this interview, it seems like (1) he has never been to the Philippines, (2) he can’t speak the language, (3) he can’t even name the town where his mom was from.  So while he is a rising star and has Filipino blood running in his veins, I don’t think we can easily proclaim him as ours.  So far, Tiger is more Thai than Day is Filipino based on how they connected to their roots at the same age and stage in their careers.   http://pinoygolfer.com/2010/07/jason-day-interview-pinoygolfer-com-gets-a-few-minutes-with-the-highest-ranked-pinoygolfer-on-the-planet/”

How about today’s version of Jean Van de Velde? The man who led for three days and was poised to become the victor? “At 21,” said Atty. Neri, “you really cannot expect a golfer to handle that pressure well immediately even if he is Rory – one of the best players today. The only time a 21 year old handled Masters pressure with such ease was Tiger Woods back in `97, but then again Rory is one of the best today while Tiger is arguably the best of all-time. Rory’s time will come.”

Woods? “Vintage Tiger is having a lead and running away with the tournament.  Tiger has never won coming from behind.  He could have easily run away with this tournament if not for his putting.  Nicklaus was pronounced washed up until he won two majors in 1980 at 40 years old and then one more in the `86 Masters – so that is three majors after turning 40. You can never count Tiger out, and I am sure he has taken a lot of positives from his performance this tournament.”

Finally, explains Jovi: “The Masters is special because of traditions the tournament has that makes it unlike any other.  There is no corporate sponsorship, the field is very limited, all past champions have lifetime invitations, and they put great importance to the amateurs and pamper them well.  This is because the founder of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament is Bobby Jones – the greatest amateur golfer ever – who was the only man to ever win a grand slam in a calendar year.”

In golf, the master of all is the…

Of the four major championships of this sport that involves birdies, best balls, bogeys and bunkers, there is only one where the venue never changes. The three others — the U.S. Open, The Open (British) and the PGA Championship — change their tournament site each year. Not The Masters. Not the first major championship of the season that’s held at the Augusta National Golf Club every first full week of April.

“The first time I played the Masters,” said Chi-Chi Rodriguez, a Hall of Famer, “I was so nervous I drank a bottle of rum before I teed off. I shot the happiest 83 of my life.” That’s the type of bliss and exuberance that The Masters elicits. For no four days of golf is followed more than the one that begins today and ends on Sunday.

Maria Johnson, formerly “Bebot Pacaña” before she moved to the U.S. 35 years ago, is a friend of mine. A 4-handicapper, she lives in Georgia and had the opportunity to visit in 2009. “From the moment I stepped inside the gate of Augusta National, I was taken by the excitement and the beauty of it all,” she said. “I have watched the tournament on TV year after year but there is nothing like seeing it live. As it was, and as it always seems to be, Augusta National abounds in pristine surroundings, immaculate fairways and stunning botanical beauty. The sides of the fairways were filled with rows of Azaleas of various colors, pink and white dogwoods, century-old Magnolias, Holly and Oak trees. What a magnificent sight! From a distance, the greens shimmered like linoleum floors not yielding much even to the best putters in the world.”

To a child, a visit to this par-72, 7,435-yard golf course is like a trip to Disneyland. For tennis buffs like Stephen Lim and Ken Salimbangon, it’s la Sunday finale at Wimbledon. To Jesse Bernad, the World Series. To Montito Garcia, the new president of the Cebu Country Club, it’s a personal trip to The Masters — an act Montito was able to fulfill in 2003.

Upon the invitation of Mirant, the power company, Montito stayed the full four days. “The boss of Mirant was an avid golfer so he rented three houses in Augusta,” said Montito. “We had a chef and everything was complete. It was fantastic. The first three days, although it was “lapok” because of the rain, we watched. Finally, on Sunday, we played at East Lake, the home course of Bobby Jones. We played early morning then watched the final few holes when Mike Weir won. Augusta is hallowed ground. It’s beautiful.”

Luckily for us here in Cebu, we’ll witness this same beauty because The Masters will be shown on TV. Based on a quick research (www.espnstar.com), coverage on ESPN begins this 12 midnight but the live showing starts at 3 a.m. tomorrow. It’s expected to be aired until 7:30 a.m. Which means that we expect many, many golfers to rise very, very early starting tomorrow at dawn until Monday.

Back to the first-hand description of Mrs. Maria Johnson, she said: “The temperature was in the low 40s and the breeze made it feel even colder. The inclement weather did not bode well for me. It is but one of those forces of nature that is beyond control and cannot be made to go away. But the excitement of being there deterred my thoughts from the freezing wind and warmed me from inside out.

“Electricity filled the air at Augusta National that day. Roars and groans could be heard all over as players produced plenty of thrills. Patrons lined up around the tees and fairways to see and follow their favorites who, once they had teed off at the first hole, went about their business, hardly speaking except to their caddies.

“It was exciting to see my favorite players but as I walked through the ‘course,’ I realized that their presence was only the second or third most exciting thing that day. The fact of the matter is that just being at Augusta National was a dream come true, and my experience created a lifelong memory.”

Golf for Japan

The new Board of Directors of the Cebu Country Club, led by Montito Garcia, is off to a fast start. They’ve only been in control for less than two weeks and, now, they’ve announced a big charity event to help Japan.

Frederic Chiongbian, the CCC Golf Chairman, wrote me: “The Cebu Country Club, in cooperation with Toyoflex Cebu Corporation and the Japanese Golfers Association, will have a tournament on Saturday, March 26.”

‘Golf For Japan’ will be that fund-raiser to help our Japanese neighbors. As a start, P1,000,000 was donated. “Club president Ramontito Garcia was on hand to receive its first donation of one million pesos from Toyoflex Cebu Corp., represented by Mr. Takashi Tanaka,” said Frederic. “Also on hand to receive the donation were Mr. Masatsugo Ochiai and Mr. Masao Koike of the Japanese Golfers Association. There will be countless raffle prizes as well as hole-in-one prizes from Eagle Golf Carts, Skygo, Mazda and Suzuki. Proceeds will be donated to the relief operations fund. Dinner and Awarding will be in the CCC main ballroom at 6:30 p.m. on March 26.”

Pres. Montito Garcia of Cebu Country Club

After 12 years at the top of the leadership board of the Cebu Country Club, Douglas LuYm has relinquished his throne. Last Friday, March 11, the CCC held its annual General Membership Meeting and elections of the Board of Directors. The new skipper? He’s the most acclaimed golfer of the crowd: Ramontito Garcia.

Montito with Jovi Neri (photo by Frederic Chiongbian)

An eight-time winner of the yearly Club Championship (from 1991 to 1995; in 2003, 2007 and 2009), Montito had long been the club’s Golf Chairman. For over 20 years, he told me in our phone conversation yesterday afternoon, he had been part of the BOD, “on and off, after two or three years, I’d rest,” he said. Finally, he is president.

“Douglas (LuYm) and the previous Board, of which I was a part of,” said Montito, “were engrossed in winning the court case involving the club’s property. That consumed most of our efforts. Kudos to Douglas for getting it done. But now that we’ve won the case, it’s a new and fresh Board. We’ll have fresh ideas.”

The term Montito uttered most? Upgrade. “The club, as you’ve noticed,” he said, “needs a major upgrade. It’s stuck in the 1980s. We’ve fixed things here, there. Now, with the court case behind us and with a new team, we’ll be talking to architects and interior designers. We’ll seek the best plans. And based on the proposals, we’ll make projections. Then we’ll raise the funds.”

Ramontito G. was not supposed to inherit his new first name, “President.”

“I wanted to quit the Board this year and rest again,” he said. “But then, members started asking, ‘Let’s go forward. You should lead it.’ And so the opportunity presented itself. It was only recently that I decided and said yes. And, you know, I love this club just as much as anybody else.”

One more factor tipped the decision to a Yes: His late father, Cheling, was formerly the club president. Theirs is a first-ever father-and-son CCC presidency.

Finally, I asked Montito if the new position would mean less or more time on the golf course. He paused for three seconds. “When I’m under pressure, I play more golf to relax. And so, yes, more time playing golf!”

Good news for Cebu Country Club. Bad news for his competitors–especially with the Club Championship unfolding next month…

BOD. The rest of the new CCC Board of Directors? Dr. Edwin Medalle (VP), Anton Florendo (Secretary), Steve Paradies (Treasurer), Ed Alegrado (House Chairman), Atty. Julius Neri (Activities Chairman) and Frederic Chiongbian (Golf Chairman).

Also yesterday, I interviewed, via email, Frederic Chiongbian. “I have pretty big shoes to fill,” he said. “My predecessor, Ramontito, did an awesome job.” Less than a week old in his new position, Frederic has yet to meet with the different golf-related committees. But he sounded positive, saying, “We do have a lot of things to do but I know that my team will, and can, deliver.”

Any improvements on the golf course? “We have existing projects right now. We’ve had a little bit of a setback on the completion of the par 3 hole number 5. This has been an inconvenience to the golfing membership, for which we apologize, but we hope to complete this area in the next 3 to 4 months. After, we move on to the completion of the remodeling of the Par 4 Hole number 6. Also, we have stepped up on the maintenance schedule of the Golf Course.”

Summer activities? “The CCC always has its Junior Golf program in the summer,” said Frederic, who plays three times each week, often with a group of Class A golfers: Carl Almario, Eric Deen, Dr. Tony San Juan, Jonji Chiongbian, Jovi Neri, Bayani Garcia, and Evans Tumaliwan.

“This year, the program starts on the 25th of April. For the last eight years, the JunGolf program was helmed by Jovi Neri and has been very successful. Under his watch, this program has produced top-rated golfers, some of whom represented the Club in the recent PAL Inter-club where CCC placed 2nd to Del Monte in the Championship division. For more, visit our Facebook page, cebucountryclub jungolfprogram.”

Tennis aces and a Japanese ace

Cebu Country Club, last weekend, organized an event to commemorate its winning a long-standing court case involving its golf course property. They called it the Thanksgiving Tournament.

One person was more thankful than everybody else. His name: Gen Nagai. His accomplishment? He scored a hole-in-one and brought home a brand-new Suzuki Celerio. This happened last Saturday. His feat was timely because, just as his countrymen were besting their Filipino rivals in Davis Cup play last weekend, Gen Nagai, a Japanese, did the same on the golf course. The tennis aces won on clay; he aced on grass. Gen’s unexpected coup at Hole No. 15 three days ago–swinging once and landing that white ball inside the cup–was the good luck charm his fellow Japanese needed. They won the Cup; he won a Celerio.

I first heard about this news last Sunday. Minutes after Go Soeda, the No.1 Japanese, defeated our own Cecil Mamiit at the Plantation Bay Resort and Spa, I was approached by a familiar face. Atty. Jovi Neri, watching from the bleachers with his fellow Class A golfers Marko Sarmiento, Macky Michael, and Mark Garcia, approached me after the game. We met inside the tennis court, just as Mamiit was swarmed with fans eager for a photograph with their fallen hero.

Jovi, the 2002 CCC Club champion, introduced me to a Japanese. “You should write about him in your next article,” said Atty. Neri. “He just made a hole-in-one.” Gen and I shook hands. Another person on-court, thinking I was a Davis Cup player (I wore the same blue Accel shirt as the players), took my photo with Gen. “Sure,” I told Jovi, who himself won the Division A trophy last weekend, besting Montito Garcia.

Here’s the rest of Gen’s story, e-mailed to me the other night by Jovi: “Last year, Gen was promised by his mom, Ryoko, that he would get a brand-new golf set if he will shoot below par.  Gen finally earned it by shooting a 3-under par 69 – in a tournament no less. For his reward, he would get a complete golf set custom fitted to his exact specifications.

“In this scientific era of sports, properly fitted equipment is a must for top-level athletes so they do not give an advantage to their rivals. REDGOLF, Cebu’s top golf retailer, had to take Gen’s measurements such as height, wrist-to-floor, hand size, swing-speed, swing characteristics, and other key parameters. Gen’s was assembled in Japan and took almost a month to arrive which was one week before the tournament.  He practiced a bit with his set but his first game with it was the tournament.

“Wielding a pitching wedge, he hit the perfect shot which never left its line, landed softly on the green and rolled to the hole. In his flight and witnesses to the amazing shot were: Jovi Neri, Mark Dy, Bayani Garcia, and Raymond Garcia…

“He worked hard on his game, and his mom gave him a reward with a new equipment. It must have been only fitting that he used his new equipment to score that elusive ace.”

Gen’s weekend was perfect. In fact, he plans to try swinging again at the sport that he used to play when he was even younger: tennis. (At the Plantation Bay bleachers, surrounded by Filipinos, he was the lone Japanese in the corner cheering for his team.)

“He was inspired watching his countrymen win,” said Jovi, “that he is contemplating a return to tennis to complement his golf practice. If not tennis, he is looking into swimming, running, soccer, or badminton. He hits balls everyday and practices the hardest among all the junior golfers in Cebu Country Club. He wants to add an active sport to maintain his fitness.”

As to the Suzuki Celerio that he won? The dutiful and obedient son that he his, he gave the car keys to his mom. The reason? Gen can’t drive. He doesn’t have a license. He can’t get one. While he can drive that dimpled golf ball 288 yards away and he can drive that electric golf cart in CCC, he can’t drive a car along Osmeña Boulevard. Why not? Gen is a Grade 8 student at the Cebu International School. He’s only 14.

Older at 51, Frankie Miñoza grows younger

I like golf. Golf doesn’t like me. The few occasions that I swung an 8-iron, the ball performed either of two reactions: it swerved right for a “hook shot” much like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s or it veered left — a “slice” as sharp as Steffi Graf’s backhand. Once, at Alta Vista with Louie Moro and Macky Michael, I lost 22 balls!

One player who loves golf and the sport loves him in return is Frankie Miñoza. Here’s outstanding news on our Pinoy ace: “Frankie became the first male Filipino to qualify on the PGA Tour,” said Marko Sarmiento, in an email last month. “Although it’s the Champions Tour, it is part of the PGA of America and one of the major tours (PGA, LPGA and Champions) in the U.S. Not only did he qualify, he qualified 2nd and only the top 5 from the final stage get a full exempt status for the 2011 season. That means that he gets to play on all the tournaments!”

Marko Sarmiento got to experience a moment that all golfers wish they go through: he played in the same foursome with Frankie. In their grouping were Montito Garcia (Marko’s uncle and the Cebu Country Club eight-time club champion), Marko’s dad, Efren, and Marko’s older brother, Arlo.

Montito, Marko, Arlo, Frankie and Efren Sarmiento

Frankie’s score that day at the CCC? A relaxed 6-under 66.

Looking ahead this 2011, Marko’s not sure if Frankie is exempted for the Majors. As to qualifying for the PGA Tour, Marko explained: “He went through a grueling 144 hole qualifier in 2 states. The regional qualifying was held in Seaside, California while the final stage was in Coral Springs, Florida. Q-school is known to be the most stressful event for any professional on any tour because of the uncertainty of their careers if they don’t qualify. After qualifying, Frankie said it is a dream come true. He’s played with all the top pros throughout his career but not on a weekly basis because he was based in Japan and competed mostly in Asia. Now he gets to rub elbows with the likes of Couples, Langer, Watson and Pavin on a day to day basis. How sweet is that??”

Here in Cebu, almost nobody outhits Marko Sarmiento off the tee. Averaging 290+ yards, his ceramic ball disappears into the air. How was Frankie, who turned 51 years of age last Dec. 29, off the mound?

“I played with Frankie a month ago and it was a good time to see the condition of his game, which was fresh from his stint in Q-school (the week after Q-school, he finished 2nd in a European Seniors event in Japan), and you could see that he was still oozing with confidence. His ball striking has always been impeccable, but his distance is what amazed me the most. I didn’t expect him to be as long as he is now, at his age of 51. He was hitting his drives 290 to 300 yards consistently.

“He has always been a long hitter but he credits 10-15 more yards to a new Titleist driver (910D3) that he just started using. He also attributes great putting to his recent success. You can say that his putting has been his achilles heel throughout his career, but when his putter gets hot, he almost always contends. He’s also in great physical shape since he runs on a regular basis. He actually looks more fit now than he did when we has in his late 30’s.”

The 5-foot-10, 160-lb. Frankie was ranked, in 1998, among the top 50 in the world. That was over a dozen years ago. But Marko considers his form today just as outstanding.

“Frankie may not be in the peak of his career like he was in the mid 1990’s when he was in the top 50 of the World Golf Rankings,” wrote Marko, “but you can argue that he isn’t far from it. Golf is the one exception to the rule of sport, and that you can actually get better with age. Many golfers peak in their 40s and don’t be surprised to see a resurgence in Frankie’s career. He’s excited and definitely motivated to turn back the clock and compete with these golfing legends.  I would have to rank Frankie as the best Filipino golfer of all time, hands down. He has the most international wins and has definitely made the most money, and remember… he’s a rookie all over again.”

Marko Sarmiento, handicap 3, averages 290

Tiger Woods is Marko Sarmiento. Both have one trait in common. No, Marko is obedient while Tiger is, well, naughty—so it’s not that. They’re similar in another way: The way they obliterate that golf ball off the tee mound; each averaging 290 yards!

I asked Marko how he does it. “I guess being a skinny Asian kid in a U.S. university had something to do with it,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the shortest hitter on our team!”

Marko Sarmiento was my schoolmate at CIS. We’re both April 9 born. But that’s where the similarities end because, on the golf course, Marko—who’s played the past 20 years since he was 12—is possibly Cebu’s longest hitter.

“I come from a family of golfers from both the Garcias and Sarmientos,” he said. “Actually, we’re a big sporting family. Our conversations are always about sports! Golf is a great social sport. You’re on the course for 4 hours and we get to play with all sorts of people with different skill levels. You can’t do this with any other sport. The personalities you meet add to the game. Why is this game special? It’s the most difficult sport to master. The player with the least mistakes wins! There’s always something to work on.”

Marko’s passion for golf took him to study the game in college. “I went to Methodist Univ. in North Carolina,” he said. “I majored in Business Administration – Professional Golf Management. It’s a unique program and 10 years ago only a handful of schools offered this. Now, around 20 U.S. universities have it, including Arizona State, North Carolina State and UNLV. This course offers both a bachelor’s degree in business with the option of pursuing a profession in the golf industry. I’m lucky that my parents gave me the chance to study what I wanted to do at that time. My dad was the most excited!”

Speaking of his dad, Efren—who, to me, owns the most genuine and biggest of smiles in town—the father-and-son duo play twice weekly at the Cebu Country Club. “I also play with my brother Arlo, Jovi Neri, Kiyofumi Takahashi and my uncle Montito,” said Marko.

“Montito,” of course, is Mr. Garcia, the 8-time CCC club champion—a title Marko relishes. “That’s the title I want most. I came in 2nd before so winning it is a must.”

As to the top pro that he applauds? Marko answered: “Chad Collins, who now plays on the US PGA Tour. He was my teammate in college.” Among Filipinos, Marko respects Frankie Miñoza. “I’ve been lucky to know him since he’s good friends with my uncle Montito. He paved the way for the locals and remains one of the best Filipino pros despite turning 50 last year. He’s going to give the US Senior PGA Tour a shot.” The trait Marko admires most about Frankie? “Despite his success, he remains humble.”

While golf is Marko’s passion, his profession is as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of JEG Development Corp., the holdings company of their real estate family business. He’s also a director of their furniture export firm, Detalia Aurora, Inc.

Other sports? Marko plays softball, water sports, basketball. As to his favorite NBA team, be surprised: “I’m a big follower of the San Antonio Spurs. I know not many follow them but I’ve been a fan since the days of David Robinson, Willie Anderson, Terry Cummings, Chuck Person and Antoine Carr. A lot of friends make fun of me because they’re boring… except for Ginobili!”

Here’s another sport he follows: “Three friends and I were at UFC 100 in Vegas in July 2009,” said Marko. “The co-main event was between Brock Lesner v. Frank Mir and George St. Pierre v. Thiago Alves. I’ve been a huge MMA fan for about four years because my good friend, Jon Syjuco, got me into it. The addiction has grown since. We bumped into Dane White (UFC Pres.) in Vegas and he said that UFC is coming to the Phils. soon!”

Back to golf, I asked Marko about driving 300-plus yards. His tip: “Turning the hips is the key to distance while the arms will follow. Too many of us try to swing too hard using brute force, which normally results in paying for all your bets!”

Ryder Cup

Wally Liu, the president of Primary Structures Corp., is a good friend and fellow member of the Rotary Club of Cebu West. Wally and I talked about sports—as we always do—last Friday. The topic? Tennis and golf, Roger/Rafa and another R: the Ryder Cup. A Federer fan, Wally said, “The difference between R & R and golf is this: In tennis, you’re just watching two players on TV while in golf, for example with the Ryder Cup, it’s 24 of the best from America and Europe—and they’re all playing simultaneously.”

Wally is correct. There’s Tiger, there’s Lee Westwood, there’s Padraig, Phil and Bubba Watson, there are the Molinari brothers, there’s 21-year-old Roy McIlroy draining a 12-foot birdie. “It’s all of these superstars,” said Wally, “on the same course playing at the same time.”