A remarkable cross-section of Bill Kwon’s "golf kids" honored him Monday at a retirement dinner organized by those closely involved with the Hawaii game.
It was fitting for a man who covered three generations of golfers in a 50-plus-year sportswriting career that ended when The Honolulu Advertiser closed last month.
Kwon’s "10-year mulligan" as the Advertiser’s golf columnist was only the final fifth of a career that was destined from the age of 6, when he sold newspapers on Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Soon after, he suffered a broken hip in a fall down the stairs and spent most of the next four years in the hospital. He told nurse Faith Nakano way back then that if his injury prevented him from playing sports, then he was going to write about them.
He did, as sports editor at Roosevelt, the University of Hawaii and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Kwon also initiated the Prep Parade weekly high school column, attended Super Bowls and hundreds of spring training games, made a pilgrimage to the Seoul Olympics and lived and died UH sports between deadlines.
But his primary passion was golf, inside the ropes and out. Former colleague Bill Gee convinced him he needed to play the game to be a serious sportswriter. Golf pro Allan Yamamoto, a baseball player when he and Kwon were UH classmates, found a way for him to play the game around the limitations of his small-kid injury.
The game ultimately consumed him, as he survived its relentless challenges on the course and constant surprises off it. He enjoyed almost every moment.
He thrives on the companionship golf inspires.
"It’s an individual sport, but really it’s a game of friendship," Kwon told more than 100 of his closest buddies Monday. "Even if your friends are trying to take your money."
He has inspired more golfers than we will ever know. He watched and shook his head at the quirky game when Gee and the Honolulu Advertiser’s Monte Ito were chronicling Ted Makalena, Joan Damon and Guinea Kop, then stepped up to lengthen the Hawaii golf legacy through the start of Michelle Wie’s and Tadd Fujikawa’s pro careers.
Monday’s exceptionally talented crowd included Hall of Famer — and grandmother — Bev Kim. Kwon first remembers watching her at age 13, about the same age he first saw Lori Castillo, David Ishii, Guy Yamamoto, all the Asao kids, Anna Umemura and so many others who were not there Monday.
The juniors are different now, Kwon says — more worldly because of all their travels and more confident because of all their opportunities and subsequent success. He likes listening to them as much as they like talking with him.
"All the golf writers inspired the young players because they make it interesting and exciting for the kids," said Ishii, whose win at the 1990 Hawaiian Open and trip to the Masters were among Kwon’s favorite stories. "Especially the ones on the outer islands who don’t have the day-to-day contact. They only had the media contact. They look at that and think this is what I want to be. They shoot for that."
Yamamoto, like Ishii, grew up on Kauai and went on to win the 1994 U.S. Amateur Public Links championship. When he was first interviewed by Kwon, he called the talk "a dream come true." He knows he is not alone.
Four-time Jennie K. champion Kristina Merkle, now a Tulsa sophomore, gave the invocation at the celebration. First she told Kwon that when she talked with him, "I knew I had done something big."
Alika Bell, headed to San Francisco on a golf scholarship, spoke for the Oahu Junior Golf Association and gave Kwon a plaque, thanking him "from the bottom of our hearts" for his "inspiration."
Bell joked that when the juniors saw Kwon, they would tell each other, "There’s Bill, you better play good."
"He never wrote an article about me," Bell lamented with a grin. "He mentioned me, but didn’t write about me like Kristina. I think she made it. I hope someday I make it."
Longtime Titleist representative Les Tamashiro and many more credited Kwon with holding the golf community together and treating the good, not-so-good and great golfers the same, and always with sensitivity.
"If Bill Kwon was there, it was important," said golf broadcaster Mark Rolfing. "It didn’t matter if it was the Makaha Open or Sony Open, he looked at everybody the same way."
Ishii went so far as to say that if there had never been writers like Gee, Ito and Kwon inspiring Hawaii’s golfers to "want to be like the big guys" our current glut of talented juniors would never have happened.
One of Kwon’s most enduring memories is of Fujikawa, who overcame his own childhood health struggles, punching in the eagle to make the 2007 Sony Open cut at age 16. Kwon watched wide-eyed while Fujikawa walked past at the 18th, just as wide-eyed.
Like most, Kwon characterizes junior golf as the best aspect of the Hawaii game now, and gives Wie much of the credit.
"Even though Michelle is not doing well right now, I think she is the real key because everybody realizes the potential is there," Kwon said. "However she got there, it might have been controversial, but she put Hawaii on the map even more than the great golfers of the past."
Stephanie Kono, now a UCLA All-American, told Kwon: "You have, in a very significant way, connected us and kept us all in touch."
Then she wished him a happy retirement.
"Now," she said, looking straight at him, "you have that precious time for all the people important to you."
Chances are, that will include many, many golfers.