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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 6, 2003

Kaua'i's Shirai, 87, longtime teacher

By Bill Kwon

With the death of Toyo Shirai last Thursday at the age of 87, Hawai'i lost of one its golf Hall of Fame legends. Shirai's accomplishments were many:

  • A first-rate golfer who played in two U.S. Opens.
  • A golf instructor who patiently and kindly taught hundreds of youngsters including his three sons. Among his students were Guy Yamamoto, who won the 1994 national public links championship, and David Ishii, winner of the 1990 Hawaiian Open and one of Hawai'i's premier golfers who went on to become among the all-time career money leaders on the Japan tour.
  • A high school golf coach at Kaua'i High.
  • A head professional and superintendent, both at the same time, at the Wailua Golf Course on Kaua'i from 1946 to 1965.
  • A self-taught golf course architect who turned Wailua into one of the top 10 municipal courses in America, according to Golf Digest, by designing the entire back nine and renovating some of the holes of the original nine-hole layout.

The United States Golf Association has been so enamored of Wailua that it selected the course to be site of three U.S. Men's Amateur Public Links Championships (1975, 1985 and 1996), the most of any venue in the 78-year history of that national event.

Frank Hannigan, a former USGA executive director, said a claim can be made that Wailua is the finest publicly owned golf course in the United States, thanks to "Toyo Shirai, a man of exceptional talents and devotion to the game."

"Toyo did a heckuva job, and Wailua speaks for itself," added long-time friend Art Fujita.

Golf notwithstanding, Shirai's first priority always was his family.

"I guess I'm a true golf widow now," said his wife, Yoshie, who was at his bedside at home when he died peacefully nearly six years after he suffered a debilitating stroke. But she had never really been a golf widow in their 57 years of marriage.

She was Toyo's constant companion everywhere, including the years when his Kaua'i High School golf teams traveled to the other islands for competition. She was a "golf mom" to many of Kaua'i's top players — including Ishii, Guy Yamamoto, George Yamamoto, Del-Marc Fujita, Deron Doi, Jonathan Ota and Tommy Hines — looking after them, even to the point of making sure that they had only 14 clubs in their bags.

Yoshie, though, did not see her husband play in his two U.S. Opens — 1948 at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles when Shirai and Guinea Kop became the first Asian Americans to compete in the national championship, and in 1949 at the Medinah Country Club near Chicago.

She had just given birth to their first child, Martha, when Shirai saw Ben Hogan win at Riviera.

When she retired after teaching 31 years at Farrington High School, Martha Shirai took piano instead of golf lessons. But she did try the game. "I still have my clubs in the closet," she said.

Her three brothers — John, Sam and Arthur — all played high school golf for their father.

"John was probably the best of the three," Yoshie said.

An Air Force retiree who now lives in Honolulu and works at Barbers Point, John Shirai represented Hawai'i along with Charlie Barenaba in the 1968 U.S. Junior Amateur at Brookline, Mass., qualifying for match play before losing in the second round. He also reached the 1976 Manoa Cup semifinals.

Sam Shirai still lives in Lihu'e, where he works for the State Department of Health. Arthur Shirai, an Air Force Academy graduate who served in Bosnia and Serbia, resides in Kent, Wash., and is a dispatcher for Alaska Airlines after retiring from the Air Force.

They were all like brothers to Ishii, who first took lessons at the age of 5 from Shirai.

"I used to spend most of my time during the summers and weekends at Wailua with (Shirai)," Ishii said, from Japan.

"Everybody on Kaua'i, anybody who ever golfed in Kaua'i, he helped. He was always available to talk about golf. His biggest thing was patience. He never lost his temper, never got angry. He was a real soft-spoken person," Ishii said.

The two kept in touch even when Ishii played for the NCAA champion University of Houston golf team.

"David would write Toyo letters five pages long," Yoshie said.

Guy Yamamoto, New Ewa Beach Golf Club's general manager and another of Shirai's Kaua'i High standout golfers, said, "As kids, we just knew him as Mr. Shirai, our coach and teacher. But as you grow older, you appreciate his accomplishments as you get to know more about him. They were huge. And he played in two U.S. Opens."

Playing at Riviera and Medinah gave Shirai some ideas on designing golf holes, according to Yoshie, who met her husband in 1946 when he took the job at Wailua after moving from the Waialae Country Club, where he rose from barefoot caddy to become an assistant pro.

Funeral services will be held Nov. 15, starting with visitation at 10 a.m. at the Lihu'e Christian Church.

Bill Kwon can be reached at bkwon@aloha.net.