Hawaii golfers add local flavor to San FranciscoSTORY SUMMARY »
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As an eight-year-old boy growing up in Waipahu, Kurt Nino became enamored with a golfer in a red shirt that could hit the ball a ton and putted with the utmost precision.
"I started golfing after watching Tiger Woods on TV," the '05 Damien alumnus said.
Nino is now a junior on the San Francisco golf team where he plays with Moses Kahalekulu (Baldwin '03) and Edward Han (Maryknoll '05).
Known as "The Hawaiians," the three have turned an entire golf team into fans of the Hawaii culture, and more specifically, local food.
"Once we gave them musubis they all wanted to start eating Hawaiian food," Han said.
All three are enjoying outstanding seasons as they prepare for the final two tournaments of the year. But for one of them, the opportunity to even swing a golf club was in doubt just a few months ago.
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COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO
Moses Kahalekulu (Baldwin '03), Kurt Nino (Damien '05) and Edward Han (Maryknoll '05) have been playing together as members of the San Francisco golf team for more than two years.
A veteran trio of golfers from Hawaii are enjoying a fun-filled season after a scary Christmas nearly brought one of their worlds to a crashing halt.
Moses Kahalekulu (Baldwin '03), Kurt Nino (Damien '05) and Edward Han (Maryknoll '05) have been playing together as members of the San Francisco golf team for over two years now.
Kahalekulu is the big brother of the group as a fifth-year senior this season and was instrumental in bringing the younger two on board.
"We played a lot of junior golf together and he played a big part in me coming here," Nino said of Kahalekulu. "He's a pure gentleman."
Nino, who started playing golf after seeing Tiger Woods on television, was recruited by a variety of colleges before a wrist injury in high school scared most of them away. San Francisco was one place that stuck with him, and with the added pull from Kahalekulu, he decided it was the right place to go.
His success in high school allowed him to have expectations of winning right away at the college level, but injuries and a giant step in competition have kept him from reaching that goal.
"I'm so surprised at how competitive golf has been," Nino said. "The dedication to golf is so much better."
Nino is on the verge of getting that elusive victory after consecutive top-10 finishes, but his outlook on the game has changed drastically over the last half year.
Six months ago, a lump was found on the back of his neck that he had checked out immediately. Doctors told him to wait six weeks thinking it might be a swollen lymph node before eventually doing a biopsy.
Two days after playing a tournament in Hawaii, Nino returned to the doctor's office to find out that they thought he might have lymphoma, which is a form of cancer.
"It brought my world down," Nino said. "It was a rough two weeks. They weren't 100 percent sure it was lymphoma, but the thought that it could be life threatening was rough."
Nino underwent the surgical procedure to have the lymph nodes removed from his neck a week before Christmas.
After the surgery was done, it was determined than Nino didn't have lymphoma, but instead suffered from a rare disease called Kikuchi Fujimoto disease.
It's a disease that originated in Asia and is very uncommon in America, and even less likely to be found in men than women. Fortunately for Nino, the only remaining sign he had the disease is a 2-inch scar in his neck from the surgery.
As lucky as he was, his brush with possible life-threatening cancer is enough to change his entire outlook on golf, school and life in general.
"Seeing people on TV with cancer kept going through my head," Nino said. "I don't take life for granted and it's changed me in way that's hard to explain. I don't know what else to say."
With the situation over with, Nino has refocused his attention to the golf where all three are having stellar seasons.
Han only played in two tournaments as a sophomore and set a goal to make the traveling squad as a junior. He's done exactly that and has already played in twice as many tournaments from a season ago.
"It's been nice," Han said. "I've improved a lot since I entered collegiate golf, but it's hard to tell this year because we're playing in harder tournaments and on much tougher golf courses."
San Francisco has played at the Olympic Cub, which hosted a U.S. Open, and at Lake Merced, which was home to the U.S. Amateur qualifying rounds.
"What I have gotten out of (collegiate golf) more than anything is getting the experience of playing on these hard courses," Han said.
Kahalekulu is the most outspoken of the three, but otherwise they share a lot of similarities. They know each other's golf swing in and out and when they're not busy on the golf course, they're helping each other with school work.
Being from Hawaii has also played an important role in creating a unique bond between the three.
"We were all roommates at one point," Han said. "Growing up in Hawaii, we have the same living style so we kind of understand each other better than the other people on the team."
That isn't to say they haven't spread their Hawaiian upbringing to the rest of the team.
"Our team likes Hawaiian food now," Han said. "They like to go to L&L (Drive Inn)."
The Dons have a tournament next week in Stevinson, Calif. before finishing the season at the WCC Championships April 14 and 15 in Tacoma, Wash.