For generations of Hawaii golfers, Lance Suzuki has been the driven, detailed and prolific champion whose proud “senior career” consisted of helping others discover his passion for the game.
Now, he is the loving family man and golf legend gone much too soon.
Suzuki died Monday, at 66, after falling ill suddenly at home in Hau’ula. The cause is unknown.
“He was working, giving lessons every day of the week,” said his son, Nathan Suzuki. “Even the day he passed he had lessons scheduled. Unfortunately, he was not going to make it.”
His death hit all those who knew him — immediate family and huge extended golf family — extremely hard.
“This one is painful,” said Casey Nakama, who worked with Suzuki the last 20 years. “Passing anytime is not good, but if you are sick you can talk story before they go. You don’t want the person to suffer, but this kind of passing … you are really not prepared.”
When people talk story about Suzuki, it will be about his devotion to his family and golf.
“He was a very kind and loving father, always there for us whenever we needed to talk,” Nathan Suzuki said. “He set a good example for me and my brother (Mark) to follow. He was tough, a good citizen, a good dad, a loving grandfather. He was always playing around with his grandkids.”
Suzuki’s extraordinary golf career — his 43 victories in Hawaii is more than any other golfer and he won at least once for 23 consecutive years — culminated with his induction into the Hawaii Golf Hall of Fame in 2002.
Suzuki was an All-State high school athlete in golf — where he won the 1969 state championship — and basketball. Junior golf founder Bob Tom helped him get the Tony Lema Scholarship, which took the 1969 Kahuku High School graduate to Brigham Young’s golf team.
“On Friday afternoons he’d shoot 68 and rush back to the gym, put on his basketball uniform and score 20 points,” recalls Wendell Tom, Bob’s son. “That’s how good an athlete he was.”
In his senior year at BYU, Suzuki was named to the eight-man All-America team along with Ben Crenshaw and Craig Stadler. He came home and won the Manoa Cup, then turned pro the next year.
What followed was a blur of victories every year through 1996. His win-list included the Mid-Pacific and Waikoloa opens eight times each, Kauai Open six times, Rainbow Open five and Hawaii State Open four.
“For decades, Lance Suzuki has been an icon for local juniors, players and professionals,” Aloha Section PGA Executive Director Wes Wailehua said. “His tournament record is unmatched by any other player in our PGA Hawaii Golf Hall of Fame.
“Off the course, he was a great family man. Throughout the years, he has helped teach, mentor, and encourage thousands of others to enjoy the game of golf. We will miss his passion for the game and spirit of Aloha.”
Back in 1977, Suzuki tied Tom Watson for fifth at the PGA Tour’s Hawaiian Open, and 25 years later he played in the senior tour’s Turtle Bay Championship, not far from his beloved North Shore home.
By then, he was working at Nakama’s Golf Development Center, helping that Hall of Famer teach players to reach their potential and go beyond.
“Casey and (wife) Jeri gave him something to work for,” Nathan Suzuki said. “He really enjoyed it, watching students progress, not only in golf but using it as an avenue for further education. He was proud to help kids get to college and reach their potential in life. He set a foundation for them.
“He enjoyed teaching people the game, whether it was little kids or adults.”
Nakama met Suzuki nearly 40 years ago. Their friendship was based on their love of golf in all its unique glory.
“He truly loved and enjoyed the search,” Nakama said. “We’ve had conversations about the search for golfing excellence. He knew that perfection was not the goal.”
Suzuki was detail-oriented and fierce as a player, hitting every shot as if it was his last and believing in himself above all else. Nakama called him a “relentless competitor.” He worked on his game daily — hitting balls even before he taught — and was meticulous about his equipment.
As a teacher, his focus was always on confidence.
“Confidence is everything in golf,” he said a few years ago. “As a coach or teacher, if you can instill confidence it’s the greatest asset you can give a kid.”
Added Nakama: “As a teacher, he was patient and he loved developing the kids. He understood the process. Golfing excellence took perseverance, determination and patience.”
Maybe Suzuki’s most well-known student was Kalani graduate Nicole Sakamoto. She worked with him eight years and dominated locally while she was in college. Now she lives in Florida and plays on the Symetra Tour.
“I just loved being around him … ,” says Sakamoto, who “never saw” Suzuki’s fierce side as a player. “He would do anything he could to help. He had so much knowledge and experience he wanted to share.
“What won’t I miss about him? Number one though is the smile he would give every time I saw him. Knowing under that intimidating face was the big caring heart of a man I considered my second dad. I’ll miss talking to him on the phone and catching up with him. I’ll miss everything.”
Sakamoto’s partner, Alvin Okada, vividly remembers when he was 17 and played a practice round with Suzuki. Okada, an expert in Hawaii golf trivia, was “totally star-struck.”
At the end of the round, Suzuki told him: “Alvin, we’re all human, we all have to swing the club. We don’t have magical powers. Think better, you play better. The past is the past. Play golf like you live life. In the moment.”
Suzuki’s success living in the moment can be some solace, for his friends and family — wife Gail, sons Nathan and Ryan, grandsons Noah and Luke and brother and sister Mark and Ann.
Services will be Aug. 24 at 5 p.m. at Hawaiian Memorial.
Today, “his stall” at Olomana Golf Links where he gave his lessons is adorned with flowers, snacks, balls and messages from students.
“I saw the transformation of his competitive spirit and energy turn toward his teaching and developing golfers,” Nakama said. “He absolutely loved the game.”