Q&A: Roosevelt golfer Kolbe Irei is the ‘Miracle Baby’

Roosevelt senior Kolbe Irei was 3-for-3 in OIA tournaments last spring. Photo by Bruce Asato/Star-Advertiser.

His parents got to witness a miracle years ago.

Roy and Avis had no idea that their son, a little boy dubbed “Miracle Baby” by his doctor, would become one of the best junior golfers in Hawaii.

Kolbe Irei is staking new territory for Roosevelt as a two-time OIA runner-up who has now won the first three tournaments of the regular season. His 66 at Oahu Country Club on a blustery Monday morning is the latest in a hot streak for the poised senior southpaw. He opened the season two weeks ago, playing for the first time after suffering a right shoulder injury, with a 66 at Ala Wai Golf Course. A week ago, it was a 69 on the potentially treacherous course at Hoakalei.


He was paralyzed on his right side at birth, unable to breathe, and unable to eat. For two years, he recovered and was fed through a tube into his stomach.

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It didn’t deter his mom, Avis, a physical therapist who consistently tested he boy’s strength and reflexes. Eventually, he walked. He picked up a putter in the backyard of his babysitter’s home and took aim on the putting green. At 2, he fell in love with golf.

Now a senior, he has already signed to play at UC Irvine. A 3.7 grade-point average didn’t hurt.

Irei has thrived in the postseason. He is the first golfer since Van Wright in 1994-95 to place second or higher in the OIA championships in consecutive years. Irei placed second as a freshman and again as a sophomore, then was fifth last year.

He placed second in the state last year. Irei is the first Roosevelt golfer to medal three times at states. The only other Rough Riders to finish second at states: Ho Yun Kang (’92), MunChoi Kang (’89) and Lloyd Nakama (’66).

This year’s state tourney will be at Wailua on Kauai.

“It can get windy over there. I’ve played there multiple times,” Irei said. “I feel like it’s an advantage for me because I play here (at OCC) every day.”

His teammates this year are senior Yoon Ho Park and junior Sky Ikeda.

After his final high school season, Irei will focus on qualifying for the U.S. Open (junior) local qualifier. Last year’s qualifier was at Waialae and he qualified to play in Dallas. This year’s qualifier will be at Hoakalei.

“Much different. The difficulty rating is about the same,” Irei said. “Hoakalei is more like a mainland course. They place the bunkers and water in specific areas.”

This is how Irei transcends the game in a modest, almost subliminal way. He is a craftsman with his tools. A gusty day doesn’t impede his game. He loves the challenge. Every tough course, every one of the toughest holes, has required a response from Irei. He has grown and has more heft on his drive — roughly 270 yards, Roosevelt coach Joey Itagaki noted. Add the lessons stored in his memory palace, and there is practically no obstacle too difficult.

In a game for ladies and gentlemen, Irei has prospered.

“He started off pretty shy and quiet. Then over time he opened up a little bit,” Itagaki said. “Now, he’s pretty personable.”

Roosevelt’s Kolbe Irei is still looking to win his first OIA and state titles. Photo by Bruce Asato/Star-Advertiser.

Kolbe Irei
Roosevelt golf
Senior

Favorites / Q&A
Toughest golf course
There’s a really tough course, Koolau, but I haven’t played there in awhile. Couple years ago, they named it one of the toughest 100 golf courses in the nation. It was in great condition before.

Favorite golf course
Probably here (Oahu Country Club) because of the scenery and it can get very challenging because of the wind. I usually hit my 7-iron 160 yards, and a couple of times I didn’t hit it 100 yards here.

I don’t remember why I started to love golf. I guess my parents had to take me to the course, so might as well try. I kind of golf on my own with my friends, but I play with my dad once in awhile on the weekends.

Athlete
Kobe Bryant. My first OIA tournament (this season) was on 2/24, so my mom went and got this (Kobe number/wings logo) at Lids Hawaii. I’m still in shock. I still can’t believe it’s true. When I woke up and heard about it, I was in complete shock. I couldn’t move, basically. I liked him because of how he played, how he practiced. I think watching him play inspired me to practice golf and try my best at every tournament I’m in. I actually went to a game at Staples (Center) five years ago. We went up to the front to get a program. The guy said, ‘Hold on, hold on.’ And he was giving a bunch of other guys the programs and we’re wondering, why isn’t he giving us a program. And then he went under and grabbed one. At halftime, they said, ‘One lucky fan has Kobe Bryant’s autograph in the program.’ We looked at each other. Wait. What. And then we opened it and saw his autograph in it.

Team: Los Angeles Lakers
I’m a diehard Lakers fan. I was watching every game during the years when they weren’t playing well a couple of years ago.

Food (at home)
Chicken katsu. I can’t make it. My parents make it once in awhile. I like to eat meat a lot. I like steak.

Food (eating out)
I like the Teishoku steak at Kam Shopping Center. Medium.


Hobby
I like to play video games. I like to play basketball with my friends.

Movie
I like to watch all the Avengers movies. My favorite is Captain America.

TV show
Impractical Jokers. They go up to strangers and they do crazy stuff.

Video game
NBA2K. My cousin, Jarin (Kawada), we play a lot. My friend Nathaniel Sizemore is tough to beat. I don’t really play golf video games that much.

Music artist
I don’t have a favorite.

Teacher: Mrs. Yasui from Maemae Elementary.
We liked staying in her class every after school. My parents had work. Sometimes, they would let me skip A Plus and let me hang out in the room. A lot of my friends hung out in that room, too. We all liked that teachers.

GPA: 3.7
Second quarter, I had a 4.0.

Does your sport affect your grades?
Without golf, my grades wouldn’t be as good. Sports have taught me to work hard. What happened when I was young pushed me to work harder at everything I do. I always knew that I had to get good grades to get into college. That pushed me to study hard and practice golf.

Class
I’ve always liked numbers, so I guess math. I’m taking AP English now. I decided to push myself a little more this year. I’m taking trigonometry now. I like numbers more than graphing. I like algebra more.

Place to relax
Home.

Motto/scripture
I don’t have one.

What does mom (Avis) say that you can’t forget?
She always tells me to do my best at everything I do.

What does dad (Roy) say that you can’t forget?
Basically the same thing.

What does your coaches say that you can’t forget?
They all basically said the same thing. Keep on practicing and you’ll get to the level you want to be.

How does golf affect your daily life?
Year round, I play tournaments. I go to the mainland a lot. I was there for a good month and a half last summer. I like it. Golf takes up a lot of time. My parents pay for it, but there’s some help from the Hawaii Junior Golf Association. THere’s different tournaments that you can qualify for, like the individual world championships, the team tournaments.

Middle and elementary schools
Kawananakoa and Maemae.

Youth sports
I played baseball at Waialae. The Cardinals. I was 7, 8, 9. I stopped. I played flag football, too. My coach asked my mom if I could play tackle, but she said no because of what happened. I really liked flag football. She told me about one story where I was trying to run after the guy going for the touchdown, and I ankle tackled him and the ref just started laughing. I tried to dive for the flag.

Travel
California, Las Vegas, Oregon, Texas, Illinois. I’m going to Kentucky this summer for a tournament. I played in Florida, South Carolina. We had a (HJGA) team event in Japan, in Miyazaki. During the team events, we have some time to go out and explore. Japan was nice. The other trips, I was going from tournament to tournament. This past summer was crazy. I played in a tournament in California, then I came back home and played here. Then I flew to Florida, and on the way back, I played in California, and two days after we came back home, I had a team event in Oregon. I think the first couple of years, I was (jet lagged), but now I’m used to it.

What is something you like to do that might surprise people?
I guess people wouldn’t expect me to throw a baseball (for a curve) like my dad said.

Time machine
I would go in the past and meet the legends. Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer. See how they practiced and what they think, watch them in tournaments. I’d want to go 30, 40, 50 years into the future, see how my life turns out.

Bucket list
I want to go to Japan again. I want to see Tokyo. See the whole country, maybe not right now because of the virus. And I want to try skydiving. I guess go to Paris, see the Eiffel Tower and just travel.


History and background of your name
My parents named me after Kobe Bryant. But because my grandma would call me ko-BEH, they added the ‘L’ in between. My mom was a Kobe fan. My grandma (Jane Kaneshiro) was a Lakers fan. She passed away five years ago. I used to go to her house during the summer and she baby sat me. I used to hang out in her house with my cousin (Zeph). My middle name is Yasu Kaneshiro.

Shout outs
Shout out my coaches, all of my coaches throughout the years. They helped me a lot to get me to where I am now. My teammates. I don’t think I would be in this position without them.

COMMENTS

  1. Rough Rider Strong March 11, 2020 11:58 am

    way too go rooughh ri der


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