Vakasiuola Seeking Another Golden Moment at El Caballero

By David Shefter, USGA

| Jul 11, 2024

Vakasiuola Seeking Another Golden Moment at El Caballero

Danny Vakasiuola’s trepidation was through the roof. The thought of putting his 16-year-old daughter, Alexis, on a 20-plus-hour journey through 17 time zones by herself would stir up anxiety in any father. Assurances from family members still didn’t put his mind at ease.

But the opportunity to represent her family heritage on a small South Pacific island some 6,400 miles from home was too good to pass up.

The Pacific Games, a multi-sport, Olympics-style competition held quadrennially since 1963, brings participants from Oceanian nations such as Tonga, Guam, the Solomon Islands, Tahiti, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Marshall Islands, Cook Islands and Fiji, among others.

Golf became part of the program in 1969. Danny, who was born in Tonga and moved to the Phoenix area in 2008, acquiesced and let Alexis compete on the Solomon Islands. His brother, Malakai Jay Vakasioula, the captain of the Tonga Golf Club, made all the necessary arrangements, and even served as her caddie.

While it required missing classes at Combs High in San Tan Valley, a southeastern suburb of Phoenix, Alexis made history, winning the 72-hole competition by 10 strokes. It was the only individual gold medal claimed by Tonga at the Games. (The country also won a team gold in women’s netball, a version of basketball played without a backboard).

Overnight, the high school junior became a hero in Tonga, a country of 171 islands (45 are inhabited) and just 105,000 residents.

For years, Tonga has produced world-class rugby players, and others with Tongan heritage have also starred in American Football, primarily as linemen.

Golf had no such pedigree, although six-time PGA Tour winner Tony Finau is half Tongan and half American Samoan. Alexis and older sister, Alyzzah, have been inspired by Finau’s success, but the Utah native has never represented either country in international competition.

Alexis, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Tonga, changed the paradigm.

“Massive achievement for us,” Malakai Jay Vakasioula told reporters of Alexis’ win.

Added Danny: “They never dreamed in a million years that they would ever win a gold medal, especially in women’s golf. Tonga has done well in boxing (one silver in the Olympics), rugby and other physical sports. This was a big, big thing for Tonga.”

For the 2023 Junior Golf Association of Arizona (JGAA) player of the year, this was her biggest achievement to date.

Alexis Vakasiuola (center) enjoyed a proud moment for Tonga by taking home gold at the 2023 Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands. (Malakai Jay Vakasiuola)

Alexis Vakasiuola (center) enjoyed a proud moment for Tonga by taking home gold at the 2023 Pacific Games in the Solomon Islands. (Malakai Jay Vakasiuola)

A gold in the Solomon Islands is one thing. Contending and possibly winning an event like the 75th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, Calif., this week would be an off-the-charts achievement for this fledgling talent.

The U.S. Girls’ Junior field will be noticeably stronger than the one she faced in the South Pacific with top 100 Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking® players such as Gianna Clemente, Jasmine Koo and Asterisk Talley among the 156 competitors. Koo was just named to the 2024 USA Curtis Cup Team.

But how many of those players can say they’ve been feted by their nation’s leader or inspired the 38-year-old crown prince, Tupouto’a ‘Ulukalalaen, to take a keen interest in golf? Or stood on the top step of a podium while your country’s national anthem is played?

Tongan officials wanted to celebrate Alexis’ feat immediately after winning gold, but Danny interceded, saying she had already missed a month of school. Last month, Tonga again wanted to regale her triumph, but her competitive summer schedule wouldn’t permit it. The third week of June, Alexis traveled to North Carolina to compete in the LPGA-USGA Championship at Pine Needles. Other American Junior Golf Association and JGAA events were on the docket as well as U.S. Girls’ Junior qualifying.

Alexis, however, hasn’t lost perspective of the importance of that win.  

“I was very excited and proud to represent Tonga,” she said. “I know that golf is not a very big sport back in Tonga. Hopefully I will encourage any upcoming [juniors] from Tonga who want to play golf. They see someone their age, especially a girl, and they know that people from Tonga are capable of doing this. It helps grow the sport. A lot of people can see [my achievement] and maybe they’ll want to play golf, too.”

The Making of a Champion

So how does someone with Vakasiuola’s background end up discovering golf?

Like a lot of young athletes growing up in Tonga, Danny Vakasiuola’s preferred sport was rugby. When he was sent to Australia for secondary education, there was hope he’d become a rugby star.


“The closest thing was hitting a ball with a bamboo stick,” said Danny laughing.

Multiple injuries forced Danny to retire from rugby and focus on his studies, which also took him to New Zealand. He eventually cultivated a successful Information Technologies (IT)/communications business in Tonga, where he met his wife, Grace. The business later expanded to American Samoa, where Alyzzah and Alexis were born, and then to Arizona. Alexis was 1 at the time of the move.

Golf didn’t enter the picture until Alyzzah, who is five years Alexis’ senior and was  13 years old at the time, saw golf being played on the television at a friend’s house. She had talked about playing basketball, but Danny didn’t want his kids involved in sports that had the potential to cause serious injury.

“I got all busted up playing rugby,” he said. “It was play, break a bone and have a beer, and do it all over the next weekend.”

Danny, of course, knew nothing about golf. But there was a course five minutes from their residence. He took Alyzzah into the golf shop at The Links and asked the pro if he had a club for her to use. One swing into a net – there was no driving range – and she was hooked.

Soon Alexis was tagging along and getting addicted as well. By watching YouTube videos, the two developed self-taught swings. But Danny had no idea how to nurture their games.

Assistance first came from Craig Wise, at the time a San Tan Valley resident who had befriended the family not long after arriving in the East Valley. Wise, a former scratch golfer who owns an area RV dealership, had helped other golfers in the past, and seeing their potential, he began helping the two aspiring golfers with course access and later club fittings and tournament fees. When Danny’s car began to have mechanical issues upon returning from the JGAA’s state tournament in Maricopa two weeks ago, Wise lent the family his Lexus so they could drive to Southern California for this past week’s IMG Junior Worlds at Torrey Pines and the ensuing U.S. Girls’ Junior.

“I literally think she’s a phenom,” said Wise of Alexis. “I have played with [professionals] like Paul Stankowski and Notah Begay and seen a lot of pure strikers of the golf ball, and [Alexis’] ball striking is phenomenal.”

More help came from Steve Dallas, a former teaching professional at Sahalee Country Club in Seattle, Wash., who currently operates two courses in Phoenix’s East Valley: Mountainbrook and Apache Creek. Dallas was the 2023 recipient of the Ed Updegraff Award from the Arizona Golf Association for those who exemplify the spirit of the game and a 2014 Arizona Golf Hall of Fame inductee. He even played a role in Fred Couples’ development, and now he’s supporting the girls  by providing unlimited course access free of charge. Alyzzah and Alexis also play a lot at Altamesa C.C., where both Wise and Dallas are members.

Danny, who also has a 5-year-old daughter (Aleyah-Grace) that has taken a liking to golf, can’t offer enough praise fof Dallas and Wise, saying that without their financial and moral support, his daughters’ golf careers never would have taken flight.

Alyzzah, 22, will be a senior at Grand Canyon University this fall after playing three seasons at Mesa Junior College, where she finished in the top five at the National Junior College Athletic Association’s national tournament each of the past three years. She was also on Alexis’ bag when she qualified for the U.S. Girls’ Junior at Terravita Golf & C.C. in Scottsdale on June 19, sharing medalist honors with 2024 U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball finalist Brynn Kort, of Henderson, Nev., and Kylee Choi, of Murrieta, Calif. 

Alexis Vaksiuola (left) was the Junior Golf Association of Arizona player of the year in 2023, winning that circuit's state championship at Paradise Valley C.C. (JGAA)

Alexis Vaksiuola (left) was the Junior Golf Association of Arizona player of the year in 2023, winning that circuit's state championship at Paradise Valley C.C. (JGAA)

Sitting at 1 over par through 15 holes, Alexis was in danger of not advancing when she reached the 530-yard, par-5 16th in two, knocking a 5-iron from 195 yards to 3 feet to set up an eagle. Earlier this year, she was invited to play in the pro-am of the LPGA Tour’s Ford Championship at Seville Golf & Country Club in Gilbert, Ariz., where she drove a 330-yard par-4 playing alongside multi-tour winner Ally Ewing.

“She has a peculiar grip and a peculiar little swing,” said Dallas, a reinstated amateur (1983) who has qualified for eight USGA championships, including six U.S. Senior Amateurs. “But she can generate just an unbelievable amount of speed. The dad has asked about seeing [an instructor] and I told him don’t let them change what she’s got.” 

The U.S. Girls’ Junior won’t be Alexis’ first major national competition. Five years ago, she qualified for the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National Golf Club. For Danny, Augusta was so far from his native Tonga that the venue might have well been on Mars. Going down Magnolia Lane with Alexis in the van that April Sunday morning was surreal.

Given her power, Alexis was thought to be one of the favorites in the Girls’ 10-11 age division. Perhaps a bit nervous and overwhelmed by the surroundings, Alexis failed to get either of her two drives in the grid, then finished last in the chipping portion. She did hole a putt on the 18th green to place second in the final discipline but was last overall among her nine other competitors. Two of those girls, Sophia Li and Maye Huang, are in the 2024 U.S. Girls’ Junior field as well.

Nevertheless, the entire experience was enlightening.

“Obviously, everyone’s dream is to go to Augusta,” she said. “The fact that I was able to be there and shake hands with [two-time Masters] champion Bubba Watson, [former U.S. Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice and so many other important people, it was just kind of crazy. I’m glad I got to experience it.”

Added Danny: “I had tears. She sunk a putt on the 18th green there and had a fist pump. Condoleezza Rice came up to congratulate my daughter. My brother came from Tonga. An amazing occasion and I’ll never forget it.”

This week, El Caballero Country Club won’t offer the same experience as Augusta National, but it just might be Alexis’ most important competition. Not yet committed to a college, the U.S. Girls’ Junior will provide the perfect opportunity for Alexis to showcase her talent, as nearly  every major Division I program is represented by a coach and/or assistant at the championship.

Dallas spent time with Alexis late last year sending letters out to 10 different college programs, but never heard back. Most top programs have completed their Class of 2025 recruiting and moved on to their 2026 and 2027 players. But the transfer portal has changed that dynamic, so coaches are always on the lookout for potential last-minute signees.

Alexis Vakasiuola's first big national moment came in the 2019 Drive, Chip & Putt Finals at Augusta National in the 10-11 division. (Sam Greenwood/Augusta National)

Alexis Vakasiuola's first big national moment came in the 2019 Drive, Chip & Putt Finals at Augusta National in the 10-11 division. (Sam Greenwood/Augusta National)

That was around the time of her Pacific Games triumph. Since then, her game has become more refined, especially from 90 yards and in, an area that has been her Achilles heel in the past.

“Her work ethic is off the charts,” said Dallas. “If it isn’t school, it’s golf. Seven days a week. Totally golf and school.

“Putting is where she’s had a little bit of trouble.  I tell her you don’t score by hitting a lot of balls.”

Both Dallas and Wise see an extremely high ceiling for Alexis. With her power and the potential to tighten up an occasionally leaky short game, there’s no telling where her game will be in four to five years.

“I would love to go to college in California,” said Alexis. “I like USC, Pepperdine and, of course, Stanford. That’s everyone’s top choice. I know that I’ve got to go and play well [in the U.S. Girls’ Junior], and that might happen.”

Seven months ago, Alexis brought home a trophy from the Pacific Games. Now, she hopes for another just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.