RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Stephanie Kono and caddy Kevin Ralbovsky talk as Kono waits to tee off on the 9th during the U.S. Open women's qualifier at Ko Olina resort earlier this week.
'Something for kids who pay the price'
The tough coach has Hawaii teens in the men's and women's U.S. Opens
Two of golf instructor Kevin Ralbovsky's students, Stephanie Kono and Tadd Fujikawa, are the reigning Hawaii girls high school champion and the boys third-place finisher in the last state tournament.
But two kids in two majors?
Born: Nov. 7, 1967, Schenectady, N.Y.
Occupation: Founder and instructor, KMR School of Golf, Ko'olau Golf Club.
Credentials: PGA of America member since 1991. Former head teaching pro at Waialae. Ranked top golf teacher in Hawaii by Golf Digest in 2001.
Education: Chaminade University, University of Hawaii.
Outside interests: "None. Basically, golf is my life."
Quotable: "Golf is a game that teaches you humility. No matter how good you get or how much success you achieve, you're going to have bad days and miss putts and easy shots. That helps keep your ego in check. That's a good thing for youngsters to learn."
Ralbovsky is likely the only coach with a junior golfer in each of the U.S. Opens this year.
Fujikawa, 15 -- the youngest U.S. Open player ever -- teed off this morning in the men's tournament's first round and Kono, 16, will play in the women's event for the first time, June 29 to July 2, at Newport Country Club in Newport, R.I.
Ralbovsky, 38, has established himself over the past several years as one of Hawaii's best golf instructors, specializing in juniors. He has a small academy of hand-picked students at Ko'olau Golf Club.
He is one of the big forces behind the blossoming of young talent in Hawaii that only begins with Michelle Wie, who was coached by Casey Nakama.
The KMR School of Golf, a non-profit organization Ralbovsky started in 2002, is intense. He works closely with his 14 students four hours a day Monday through Friday, and usually around 12 hours on the weekends.
"Basically all the kids involved practice golf on a full-time basis in order to reach the competitive level we want, which is the national level," Ralbovsky said. "We wanted to create something for kids willing to pay the price."
The monetary cost to the students and their parents is nil. KMR is funded through sponsorships and donations. Ralbovsky said he is also able to do it because of money he makes from other private lessons.
Nakama works with a wider range of talents as director of the Casey Nakama Golf Development Center.
"He works them really hard and a lot of kids are not willing to do that," Nakama said. "He's tough, but that's what they need to excel at that level."
Kono said the long hours do not create drudgery or the potential for burnout.
"The way he teaches the (golf swing), he tries to make it very simple, not complicated, no funky moves in your swing. He doesn't try to bombard our minds with all this information, instead, when something is off, we only need to try to fix a couple things at a time," Kono said. "We all have a lot of fun. He makes us practice every
day, but it's a lot of fun, it's not like work at all. We have at least 10 kids every day and we play games and we have fun."
The games include partnering up for putting and chipping contests.
"I like to put them in competitive situations," Ralbovsky said. "They're competitive, so putting something on the line makes it more fun for them, and it prepares them for similar situations in tournaments."
KMR alumni include Kamehameha graduate Mari Chun, a former prep state champion who won four national tournaments and is now at Stanford. Another is Moanalua product and University of Hawaii golfer Ryan Perez, who captured the Manoa Cup (and the state amateur match-play title that goes with it) in 2004.
And they keep coming; Lorens Chan, a David Ishii look-alike, won two national tournaments last year in the under-11 age group.
AFTER A canceled flight from Honolulu on Tuesday night, Kevin Ralbovsky arrived at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaronek, N.Y., late yesterday to caddie for Fujikawa. He had just helped guide Kono to her qualifying victory at Ko Olina on Tuesday.
He said Fujikawa was ready for today after several practice rounds. Yesterday's scheduled round with Tiger Woods didn't come about, but that didn't bother Fujikawa.
"Tadd didn't get to play with Tiger, but he still had a great day," Ralbovsky said.
Fujikawa's emergence as the pre-tournament darling because of his youth, 5-foot-1 height, and survival story of premature birth hasn't distracted the youngster, Ralbovsky said.
The goal is to make the cut, and Ralbovsky doesn't expect Fujikawa's compact but powerful and efficient swing -- or his hot putter -- to abandon him.
"Technically he's extremely sound. We work hard on fine-tuning his golf swing. It doesn't require too much timing. Because his technique is good, it allows him to hit it hard, go after it hard. That's the reason he can hit far (averaging around 285 yards off the tee)," Ralbovsky said.
Fujikawa's lack of height is an advantage in the sense his swing has fewer opportunities to develop flaws.
"It's probably a little easier to time the swing if you're short," the coach said. "You have less moving parts and you're closer to the ball. Anytime you're swinging 115 to 120 mph you've got to have expert timing. It comes with practice, position, how well you time it."
Fujikawa recently rediscovered his putting stroke, crediting it for his qualifying win on Kauai.
As it is with Fujikawa, composure is a hallmark of Kono's game, Ralbovsky said.
"Like Tadd, she has a very good head on her shoulders," he said. "Emotionally she's very stable. Her game is a good blend of power and consistency."
Kono can't always match the mammoth drives of her Punahou schoolmate Michelle Wie, but Kono has steadily improved her distance with yoga and weight-training. She now averages around 270 yards off the tee -- more than adequate LPGA power.
KEVIN RALBOVSKY grew up in Albany, N.Y.
He came to Hawaii in 1986 to go to Chaminade University, and then attended UH. He left school in 1989 to become assistant golf pro at Waialae Country Club.
He played briefly on the South African tour, and then on the Golden State tour in California.
As an instructor with former PGA Tour pro Mac O'Grady's golf schools, Ralbovsky worked with Vijay Singh, Seve Ballesteros and Steve Elkington.
"I got a lot of insights about the game," he said.
Ralbovsky returned to Waialae as a teaching pro from 1995 to 2002 before starting his school.
"We have a lot of junior programs in Hawaii," Ralbovsky said. "Before Michelle Wie, the question was how come Hawaii doesn't produce more tour players. I want to see Hawaii represented more on both tours.
"When you have a golf school operation and you work with so many kids, the advanced ones don't always get the training they need. The advanced ones were falling through the cracks.
"I wanted to be able to work with players like Tadd and Stephanie every day. Our program is designed for those who are really going to work their tail off. I tell them, and they laugh, but I tell them you have to be desperate. Desperation is a motivating factor."