By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Italy is a long way from Waimea, over 7,760 miles, but Luigi Balbo enjoyed his exchange program so much at Hawaii Prep that six months turned into two years.
“What I like best is the people and academic environment at HPA, and how the school system has been created,” he said. “It’s not a duty but a pleasure to go to school. Everybody loves to be there. Hawaii is the same with the people here. Hawaii is an amazing place to be.”
Besides a private school education, the Ka Makani senior gets an added benefit — playing Big Island Interscholastic Federation golf on the island’s finest courses.
Balbo shot 91 in the BIIF season opener on a windy Wednesday at Hilo Muni, where Waiakea sophomore Trevor Hirata fired a 4-over-par 75 to win medalist honors and freshman teammate Shon Katahira was right behind with a 76.
The next meet is Monday, March 24 at Hokulia, which was designed by Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, who still holds a record 18 majors.
“I usually play 10 shots or less than that 91. I missed a lot of greens and fairways, but my short game was still working,” Balbo said. “My swing is improving but I still have to show it on the golf course. I hope to be in the top five in the BIIF. That’s my goal.”
Balbo is planning to attend a college in the states and major in either engineering or business.
He’s also getting an education in golf from coach Deighton Emmons, who’s in his 21st year and teaches science at the school’s upper campus.
“I’ve learned to play the game with my head and forget the numbers, and focus on psychology and philosophy,” Balbo said. “Last year, I started with scores way above 90 but got better thinking about psychology and dealing with bad scores to have success after a double bogey. Hopefully, I can learn everything again.”
If Balbo starts driving the ball off the tee straight as an arrow, he can give Emmons a high-five.
“The driver is his,” Balbo said. “I was hitting the other driver too hard. Coach’s club is stiff and driving is the best part of my game. I used to be poor with that.”
Balbo was good enough to qualify for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state golf championships last year on Maui, where he shot 87-83 for a 170 total, 34 strokes behind first place.
“He’s really come a long way with his game,” Emmons said. “He’s a real student of the game. Every time I see him reading something it’s about golf, like golf architecture.
“He’s spends a lot of time on the range, working on his distance and accuracy. He’ll be very competitive in the league. Hopefully, he can maintain a good scoring average to qualify for states.”
Golf is not the most popular sport at HPA. But Emmons has had a few standouts, including Andrew Paisley, last season’s BIIF champion, who’s now playing on the Arizona State club team.
There’s also 2007 graduate Max Bonk, who played at Pacific University and went to the NCAA Division III championship three times. As a senior, he was third nationally in Golfstat’s Division III statistical rankings and was among the top 50 in all college divisions.
His older brother Burt Bonk, a 2005 graduate, tied for second place at states in 2002 as a freshman and played at Linfield College. He’s now a real estate agent.
For the girls, one of Emmons’ best players was 2007 graduate Tammy Surtees, who golfed at Santa Clara and qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship in 2006 and ‘07.
“We’ve had a lot of great kids,” Emmons said. “Luigi is typical of the kids we’ve had in the program, hard working, responsible, well-spoken, and polite — above and beyond what happens on the golf course.”
Golf at heart
Emmons grew up in Massachusetts and golfed at the University of Maine. Everybody in his family of six is still playing.
He and his wife Tisa, a residential parent at HPA, still golf. She plays every weekend and competes in a police league.
“She’s very good, but she doesn’t beat me,” Emmons said. “But she’s getting close. I’m in the high 70s and lows 80s now. I was in the low 70s in college.”
Their two daughters — Heather, a teacher at Hualalai, and Samantha, a budding musician on the Waimea scene — both graduated from HPA but didn’t golf. They both went into the arts at the school and performed on the stage and theater.
Emmons has a soft spot in his heart for Max Bonk. The coach jokingly calls him the “golfing son I never had.” He also has fond memories of the Division III All-American golfer’s parents Ken and Sandy Bonk.
“They’re really good kids and the family was amazing,” Emmons said. “They came up through the junior golf program at Naniloa with Kyle Shimokusu, who was their swing coach. Then the family decided to send the boys to HPA, which was a blessing for us.
“Every time they would play in a junior tourney all the parents knew each other and helped and supported one another. You noticed the camaraderie and energy. It was an alliance of friends and family, and it was fun to watch. That led to a lot of success for Max and Burt and the junior golf program.”
For over two decades, Emmons continues that camaraderie at HPA, which welcomes golfers, including Balbo who’s a long way from home, with open arms.
“We’re a young team and rebuilding with new players,” Emmons said. “We want players to come out, learn the game and play competitively. But we want them to enjoy the game.”