Highland Park’s Kelli Ono out of girls golf on a high note

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HIGHLAND PARK — Kelli Ono knew Saturday would be the last round in her seven-year competitive golf career. The Highland Park senior wanted to go out with a good memory.

The first day of the Class AA state tournament was a battle against the weather. When Ono teed off at 10:18 a.m. on Friday at Hickory Point Golf Club in Decatur, the day was pleasant. But it soon turned ugly.

“It started out sunny. Then the clouds rolled in,” Giants coach Cathy Nachman said. “It never got as nice as they said it was going to be.”

Despite the wind and cold, Ono, an experienced tournament golfer, fired a 7-over par 79. Six shots off the leader, Ono was in contention to reach her goal of a top-10 finish.

“I started out well and was excited to keep going. I’m glad with how I played and managed my game well,” she said.

On Saturday, the wind picked up. Starting her round on the 10th hole, Ono struggled with her approach shots to the green. Her 5-over par 41 on her first nine holes all but eliminated any chance of reaching her top-10 goal. After 16 holes, she was 10 over.

“I was frustrated with myself. It was a snowball and it kept getting worse,” Ono said.

But as she stepped onto the tee box at the eighth hole — her 17th of the day — Ono had a moment of clarity. Before the high school season, she had decided not to play college golf. The choice gave her peace of mind.

“There’s a lot less pressure to do well. I wanted to see how high I could finish,” Ono said. “I was doing it for myself.”

She thought about that as she reached into her bag to pull out an 8-iron. She reached the green of the 148-yard, par-3 eighth in one. A 30-foot putt awaited. With the ball located above the hole and to its left, Ono drained the putt for a birdie.

“It was the first putt I hit [all tournament],” she said.

Ono parred the final hole to finish her round with a score of 81. Her two-day total of 160 put her in a four-way tie for 18th place.

It may be a long time before Highland Park sees another golfer as proficient as Ono. During a four-year varsity career, she played in the state tournament each season. Three of the four years resulted in an individual top-20 finish.

“There is nobody [at Highland Park] who had done that,” Nachman said of Ono’s four-year state tournament résumé. “She has a presence on the golf course. That presence and confidence has taken her to a level where no one has been. It’s heartwarming to see what she’s accomplished.”

Although she won’t be playing competitive golf, Ono plans to continue to play recreationally. And she’ll always have her high school career to reflect upon.

“I’m just thankful I’ve gotten to play for such a great team and great coaches like [Nachman] and [assistant] Abby Many. My parents [Clyde and Karen Ono] have supported me from the beginning,” Ono said. “It’s sad to think it’s over, but my high school career, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

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