As rising stars in the game of golf go, not much was known about 14-year-old Trey Kaahanui of Tempe before he burst on the scene three months ago.
But eyebrows were raised when Kaahanui, then an eighth-grader at Connolly Middle School, beat a bunch of the nation’s top American Junior Golf Association players at the ReBath Heather Farr Classic at Longbow Golf Club in Mesa.
And he didn’t just win; he topped a field of golfers who were three to four years his senior by an amazing five shots.
The Heather Farr field wasn’t weak, either. Among Kaahanui’s victims were six Rolex Junior All-Americans.
“That was my third (AJGA) tournament, and I really hadn’t played that well in the first two, which I had to qualify for,” Kaahanui said. “I had to win a playoff with four guys for two spots just to get into the Heather Farr.
“I have to admit, I was really surprised how well I played that week. Everything was good, everything worked. And in the end, it turned out kind of big.’’
So big that Kaahanui currently is the No. 1-ranked 14-year-old in the country, and is among the headliners for this week’s ninth annual AJGA Thunderbird International at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale. The 54-hole tournament, which features many of the top-rated juniors in the country, including Chan Kim and Andrew Yun of Chandler, and Nicholas Losole III of Scottsdale, takes place Saturday through Monday.
Kaahanui had won several tournaments before the Heather Farr, but mostly at the state level. His instant fame has been so meteoric that he has been selected to play next month on the U.S. team competing in the Evian Masters Junior Cup in France.
“My life has changed really big, that’s for sure,’’ Kaahanui said. “I don’t have to qualify any more (for AJGA events), and I’ve talked to people from Nike.
“But being selected to represent the U.S. team (in France), that is a huge accomplishment for me. Playing in that competition was never on my horizon, kind of like playing on the AJGA was never on my horizon.’’
It has come quickly for Kaahanui, who is one of a family of six children ranging in age from 8 to 22 years. Raising five boys and one girl means there are a lot of needs to fulfill, and in that regard family funds are limited when it comes to golf.
But once again, Kaahanui has been fortunate because the AJGA has a special arm that reaches out to youngsters in need of financial assistance called the Achieving Competitive Excellence (ACE) grant program.
It has been a saving grace for the youngster.
“I play and they reimburse my parents for expenses,’’ Kaahanui said. “Since all six of us kids golf, the ACE program has really helped my mom and dad. Without it, I’m sure I wouldn’t be playing on the AJGA.’’
To understand how far Kaahanui has come, consider that just five years ago he was playing golf at Shalimar Country Club in Tempe with an occasional tournament here and there. But when his father, Ted, was involved in a near-fatal truck crash in December 2003, Kaahanui’s life changed unexpectedly, his mother, Lisa said.
“Ted was in a coma for weeks, and Trey was very depressed and having trouble even leaving the house, let alone play golf,’’ said Lisa, who like her husband is a native Hawaiian. “Fortunately, he had played in some (Junior Golf Association of Arizona) tournaments and had met some really nice kids.
“One day his golf friends came to the house and got Trey to go with them and play in the (JGAA) Winter Classic. He went out and won that tournament, and ever since then he has worked so hard on his golf game that he deserves what’s happening to him now.
“I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something deep down that drives that boy.’’
Kaahanui, whose father eventually recovered after years of therapy, gives a lot of credit to his instructor, Kent Chase. He also said that a recent switch to home-schooling also has been a key to his progress, although, “I still plan to go to college and play on a team for four years.’’
But Kaahanui also remembers where he came from, and in that regard he gives the longtime director of golf at Shalimar, John Gunby, a lot of credit “for being big in my life.’’
“He taught me how to play, and he taught me about having fun with golf,’’ Kaahanui said. “And I’m still having fun.’’
Gunby, for one, said it’s one of his prized pupil’s best attributes.
“Trey could be the best (junior player) I’ve ever seen come out of Arizona,’’ said Gunby, who has been a mentor to hundreds of kids who play the game in Tempe.
“He’s tall, he’s strong, he’s got a great swing, and he’s got the mind for it, too. That he still likes to have fun when he plays, well, if he can keep that going Trey Kaahanui is going to go far.’’