Among Gentlemen

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Roy Kanashiro, Bob Goto and Masa Samura brandish their putters like Juan Chi Chi Rodriguez used to do. (Photos by JORDAN IKEDA/Rafu Shimpo)


Last Friday, Jan. 15, 40 members of the Friday Seniorís Golf Club opened their new season at Rancho Park Golf Course and I was invited by Yosh Hirai (of CYC-fame) to tag along. For those golf enthusiasts out there, Rancho is the same course where Arnold Palmer famously chalked up eight strokes and four penalties for an everymanís score of 12 on the 18th hole. A fact that certainly eases a bit of the sting after a three-put quad.

Being that 2010 is the Year of the Tiger it seemed appropriate that I was at long last able to join the guys out on the links. Thanks to heavy rains and an eleventh-hour trip to U.C. Davis that suddenly materialized, my first attempt to catch their final tourney of 2009 sliced foul.

This time around, things fared much better. The weather was a very Los Angeles-like mid-70s, with just enough breeze to keep cool. Blue skies were shaded by a slight cloud cover, just enough to shield from the sun.

Seems somewhat hard to imagine given the mini tornados and pelting hail throughout So Cal this past week, but last Friday, weather conditions begged for an outdoor activity.

Enter golf.

Yosh Hirai escapes the sand.

Every first Friday of the month, the Friday Senior’s Golf Club members get together to play the gentleman’s game. They saddle up in the wee hours of the morning, coming from Gardena and Temecula and the Valley and Rosemead, getting together to break fast with each other, chat it up for a bit over coffee, before heading off to the tee box to kick off the sport they love.

“He just got caught,” Its Endo told me about the state of the aforementioned Mr. Woods. “What’s the big deal, you know? One good thing is, now that when they have tournaments, they’ll show the frontrunners for first place and not just Tiger. He used to take up half the network time, even if he was way back in the standings.”

Among the pro golfers that the Friday Seniors frequently watched: Freddie Couples, Sam Sneed, Palmer, Chi Chi Rodriguez. Many of them enjoy the current game as well with Ryo Ishikawa, Ai Miyazato and Michelle Wie.

“Even though not too many people like him,” said Shig Kuida, “I root for Anthony Kim because he’s Asian. It was great to see Y.E. Yang win. Everybody kind of writes off Asians. Just like baseball. You never heard about an Asian in baseball, till the last decade. Now you’ve got several big stars. It’s good for the Japanese now, they know they can do it.”

As evidenced by their opinions, the Friday Seniors consists of a colorful group of 70 to 90-something-year-old retirees, who, in their own right, can still do it. At one end of the spectrum is Charles Suyeshi who is still competing for the tournament pot at the ripe young age of 92. On the other end, there’s Masa Samura who, at his oldest, might be pushing 70. And I’m not quite sure how old George Uyehara is, but he can sure drive the ball like a 50-year-old.

Regardless of age, all of these men have got way better handicaps then I could ever hope for. Of course, the saying is “practice makes perfect,” and these gentlemen have been swinging golf clubs for decades.

But why do they play? As John Iwamiya explains it, golf fulfills a lot of different things in life. Competition. Exercise. Camaraderie. In fact, the vast majority of the other golfers I spoke with last Friday morning told me camaraderie is the biggest attraction, that and the idles of retirement. Throw
in a little bit of friendly money at stake and some nice weather and voila!

Of course, there are also those who participate for unexpected reasons.

“I like to come out because it’s frustrating,” said Walt Kuida, who’s been at golf for 40 years. “That’s the challenge. Even if you’re lousy, you always try to be a better golfer. If it was an easy game, people wouldn’t be that interested in playing.”

While its concept sounds easy enough—hit ball, with stick, into hole—in truth, I side with the pundits who believe golf is the most challenging sport out there.

First, you have to get that swing consistent—like a robot. Once you’ve got that, you have to adjust that swing to accommodate the 14 clubs in your bag. Driving and putting could be considered two different games in and of themselves, but blend that with chipping, iron-work, fairway woods, approach shots, and sand shots all while accounting for variables like the loft of the clubhead, the changing weather and terrain, and the need to accurately judge distance, and you have a game rife with the potential to frustrate before even dipping into any of the technical stuff.

And yet, Kuwa Iwataki, who will be turning 90 in a couple of months, has been at it since 1952, while George Ajioka has been swinging clubs for over 60 years, and Ben Kobayashi, who has himself been playing for nearly half a century, enjoys watching the golf channel and the regular tournaments, while also reading up on the sport in the various golf magazines.

Sure there’s lots of frustration. A bad chip. A hooking drive into water. Hitting a fairway ball flat. Triple-putting a birdie try.

“At the end of the day, most of the time,” said Tosh Higa, “you wonder why you came out.”

And then you have the magic moments. Like the time Fred Funakoshi shot a one-under par (though no one believes him) or the once-in-a-lifetime hole-in-one that had Mits Shiozaki buying drinks for everybody (though he didn’t even get to see the ball go in). It’s the continual disappointing nature of failure juxtaposed with the singular moments of pure exhilaration that give golf that heady addiction.

And last Friday, I got a little fix.

I learned some trade secrets, like a good way to remind yourself to keep your head down is to watch for the divot in the ground. That tip, courtesy of Jose Quindara, the man everyone calls “Q.” His credentials? Just check the leader board for the A Flite division. I also got to experience the pure, fluid swing of Sam Matsunaga, who just looks so effortless when he tees off.

And, I was able to see the resilience of a group of men who even as their backs have become increasingly more stubborn, the distance on their drivers continues to wane and the flight of their golf balls has gotten ever harder for them to see, these men continue to come back out for more.

“I think I broke 90 a couple of times,” Tosh Ohara said. “You’re ready to give up the game, and then you hit one nice shot and you say, ‘Oh, okay. I’ll come back again.’”

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To see more action shots, visit the Rafu photo journals here.

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