Luigi Balbo enjoyed his exchange program so much at Hawaii Preparatory Academy that six months turned into two years for the student from Italy.
“What I like best is the people and academic environment at HPA, and how the school system has been created,” he said. “It’s not a duty but a pleasure to go to school. Everybody loves to be there. Hawaii is the same with the people here. Hawaii is an amazing place to be.”
Besides a private school education, Ka Makani senior gets an added benefit — playing Big Island Interscholastic Federation golf on the island’s finest courses.
Balbo shot 91 in the BIIF season opener on a windy Wednesday at Hilo Municipal Golf Course, where Waiakea sophomore Trevor Hirata fired a 4-over-par 75 to win medalist honors and freshman teammate Shon Katahira was right behind with a 76.
The next meet is March 24 at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Hokulia.
“I usually play 10 shots or less than that 91. I missed a lot of greens and fairways, but my short game was still working,” Balbo said. “My swing is improving but I still have to show it on the golf course. I hope to be in the top five in the BIIF. That’s my goal.”
Balbo is planning to attend a college in the U.S. and major in engineering or business.
He’s also getting an education in golf from coach Deighton Emmons, who’s in his 21st year and teaches science at the school’s upper campus.
“I’ve learned to play the game with my head and forget the numbers, and focus on psychology and philosophy,” Balbo said. “Last year, I started with scores way above 90 but got better thinking about psychology and dealing with bad scores to have success after a double bogey. Hopefully, I can learn everything again.”
If Balbo starts driving the ball straight off the tee, he can give Emmons a high-five.
“The driver is his,” Balbo said. “I was hitting the other driver too hard. Coach’s club is stiff and driving is the best part of my game. I used to be poor with that.”
Balbo was good enough to qualify for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state golf championships last year on Maui, where he shot 87-83 for a 170 total, 34 strokes behind first place.
“He’s really come a long way with his game,” Emmons said. “He’s a real student of the game. Every time I see him reading something it’s about golf, like golf architecture.
“He’s spends a lot of time on the range, working on his distance and accuracy. He’ll be very competitive in the league. Hopefully, he can maintain a good scoring average to qualify for states.”
Emmons has coached a few standouts, including Andrew Paisley, last season’s BIIF champion, who’s now playing on the Arizona State club team.
There’s also 2007 graduate Max Bonk, who played at Pacific University and went to the NCAA Division III championship three times. As a senior, he was third nationally in Golfstat’s Division III statistical rankings and was among the top 50 in all college divisions.
His older brother Burt Bonk, a 2005 graduate, tied for second place at states in 2002 as a freshman and played at Linfield College.
For the girls, one of Emmons’ best players was 2007 graduate Tammy Surtees, who golfed at Santa Clara and qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship in 2006 and ’07.
“We’ve had a lot of great kids,” Emmons said. “Luigi is typical of the kids we’ve had in the program, hard working, responsible, well-spoken, and polite — above and beyond what happens on the golf course.”
“We’re a young team and rebuilding with new players,” Emmons said. “We want players to come out, learn the game and play competitively. But we want them to enjoy the game.”