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Perfect pairing

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Casey Watabu and Kila Ka'aihue chatted on the second hole at Pearl Country Club.
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One of golf’s most endearing qualities is its inherent fairness. Nobody ever actually masters it. Players call penalties on themselves. Handicaps allow the good, bad and ugly players to compete equally. Little guys can smoke drives by big guys.

Which brings us to Casey Watabu and Kila Ka’aihue. The diverse duo played together earlier this week in the Bridgestone Sports Pro-Scratch Championship, which matches pros and amateurs in a team format. They were a shot out of first after shooting 10-under-par 62 in Monday’s scramble format, then settled for seventh after a 71 in Tuesday’s best-ball format.

The two have been golf buddies from the day they met at Waikele long ago. Ka’aihue, a 26-year-old ‘Iolani graduate, is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. He just spent the last two months of the baseball season with the Kansas City Royals, collecting eight homers and 25 RBIs in his first serious shot in the majors. Watabu follows him online, texting when Ka’aihue has a good game. Some — and not just fantasy baseball freaks –say he will be the Royals starting first baseman next season.

Watabu, a 2001 Kauai High graduate, is about eight inches shorter and 75 pounds lighter. He beat Anthony Kim for the 2006 U.S. Public Links Championship and was the NCAA West Region medalist the same year. Watabu, 27, got his degree in biology from the University of Nevada, played the 2007 Masters and turned pro.

After failing to qualify for the PGA Tour last year, he had lost his passion for the game and most of his money. He’s working two jobs now while trying to ignite the spark that fuels this crazy game.

"I’m just trying take it slow. I don’t want to rush back into it," Watabu says. "Obviously I know I’m probably going to play again. I’d like to play, but the money situation … I’ve got to first prove to myself I can play."

It is hard to find time to practice, but he plans to play the Hawaii State Open next month, try to qualify for the Sony Open and play the Hawaii Pearl Open.

"If I prove to myself and others I can win," Watabu says, "then maybe I can get a sponsor for next year and take it from there."

Ka’aihue has become part of his support system. He has been through much the same as Watabu the last few years, even if it is in a different sport, and empathizes. While Watabu grew up around golf, Ka’aihue’s father, Kala, played for the Hawaii Islanders and younger brother, Kala Jr., is now in the minors. He finished sixth at the Pro-Scratch with Philip Chun. Sister Elizabeth is a senior captain for the University of Hawaii’s fourth-ranked volleyball team.

In Kila’s eight years with the Royals, he has worked through slumps and streaks, injuries and curious management decisions. He scorched baseball’s AAA earth in Omaha, Neb., two years ago, hitting .314 with 37 homers and 100 RBIs, and was called up for the first time. He didn’t get back until this year, when he hit .319 in Omaha with 24 homers and 78 RBIs.

Now he’s home. Next month he will dive back into baseball-specific workouts. For now, he is playing "as much golf as possible."

"I’ll do that all the way through February (when he reports)," Ka’aihue said. "It keeps me flexible, keeps me outside. I can’t replicate the mental game, so this is the closest thing I can do. Grinding out holes is kind of like grinding out at-bats."

He likes golfing with Watabu for reasons beyond his amiable personality.

For a small guy, Watabu has always been able to go long and "unless Kila really smokes one" both drive the ball in the 300-yard range. Ka’aihue tries to emulate Watabu’s game on the course, with a specific focus on his decision-making.

Watabu feeds off Ka’aihue’s calm demeanor.

"He never gets low, never gets high," Watabu says. "You’ve got to keep level-headed no matter what — any professional athlete. You can’t get high or low. We had some difficult times on the course and I’d get down, but I look at him and he’s smiling. That keeps the morale up."

That might be what Watabu needs most now.

"It’s really hard when it turns into work," Ka’aihue says. "The time will come when he falls in love with golf again. He just has to take care of himself. There’s times during the season when I don’t like the game, it’s frustrating. It’s something mental. It’s not easy when you don’t want to do what you’ve got to do."

 

Juniors make their choices

Four Hawaii high school seniors will sign letters of intent at Wednesday’s Asia Pacific Junior Cup opening ceremony.

Hawaii players who will sign college letters are: reigning state high school champion Cassy Isagawa (Oregon), from Baldwin; Aiea’s Ryan Kuroiwa (University of Hawaii); and Punahou’s Cyd Okino (Washington) and Alina Ching (Pepperdine).

The ceremony begins at 3:30 p.m. at Waikoloa’s Kings’ Course.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to highlight the many accomplishments of our junior golfers who are signing their letters of intent, while introducing the younger golfers to some of their mentors from two countries," said Mary Bea Porter-King, USGA and president of the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association.

"The fact that one fourth of the Hawaii players that qualified for the Asia Pacific Junior Cup are already college bound with scholarships is a true testament to their commitment to excellence and their reputation as outstanding citizens, the very mission of the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association."

The Cup features 16-player teams from Hawaii and Japan competing in a Ryder Cup-style format. The competition runs next Thursday to Saturday.

 

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