Misaki Saito believes her son Leo’s golfing success comes from Tiger’s hat.
The 10-year-old St. Joseph student doesn’t wear a red shirt like Tiger Woods, his favorite golfer, but he likes to wear the Tiger logo hats.
About a week ago at Hualalai, Saito became the first boy from Hawaii to qualify for the 8th annual Drive Chip Putt National Finals at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, where the championship will be held a few days before the Masters in April 2022.
“I felt happy. It’s the first time I’m going to Augusta National,” Leo said. “I concentrated more than I do at practice. I was really nervous. My coach (Troy Sato) told me to hit the ball higher.”
The course was wet, so the ball wasn’t rolling. But Leo’s success and qualifying trip to the home of the Masters still has Misaki in disbelief.
“I didn’t know he was the first boy from Hawaii to qualify,” she said. “It feels like a dream. When we watch the Masters, I imagine he’ll be there. My parents (Seisaku and Mihoko Sato) in Japan are so happy. They love to watch him golf. They’re big supporters of Leo.”
Misaki asked Leo if he wanted to try different sports, but he declined each one. When golf was brought up three years ago, Leo decided to play because his mom had taken up the game.
One day at the Hilo Muni driving range, they ran into golf coach Troy Sato and started lessons.
“He’s so nice with the kids and works well with them,” Misaki said.
Sato knows it’s quite the accomplishment for Leo to beat out tens of thousands of kids in a challenging process.
“There are so many steps. The big qualifier was at Hualalai. The state was at Kapolei,” Sato said “For the national, there are tens of thousand of kids. They’ll break it down to 10 in each age group. Kids from all over the state are trying to do this.
“This is his first year of playing tournaments because of Covid. I knew he was strong but couldn’t compare him to anyone. He went to the junior world qualifier at Pearl Country Club and almost medaled. The top five medal. He had three bogeys on the back nine and tied for eighth.
“He won the U.S. Kids tourney with a 3-under 69 to win. So he’s a strong boy. To make nationals as the first boy from Hawaii, it’s big and good for golf. The numbers were going down, but it’s back on track again. It’s good for everybody.”
Tiger’s hat may give Leo inspiration, but only practice can sharpen a golf game. Somewhere, Allen Iverson is complaining about practice. But Leo practices six days a week for three to four hours. On Sunday, he takes sort of a day off. He’ll golf a bit then rest.
Leo’s owns three wins on the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association circuit. But Misaki traces that string of wins to Tiger’s hat.
“We went to the IMG in San Diego and found a Tiger Woods hat,” she said. “Then he started winning. Golf is expensive flying all over. I have my husband, Syuck Ki Saito, and his mom, BJ Saito, to thank. She helps our family a lot while we are busy for tournaments.”
Leo’s 9-year-old brother Lenny is also picking up the family sport.
Leo’s favorite foods are sushi and mom’s pork tonkatsu.
Misaki hasn’t seen her parents since January 2020, so she’s hoping she can embrace them at Augusta.
“Maybe my parents can come from Japan,” she said. “They introduced us to golf. It’s a good gift for them. It’s different than watching the PGA Tour on TV. Their own grandchild is playing there.”
Leo’s next tournament is the HSJGA’s Michelle Wie championship in December on Maui, where no doubt out he’ll be wearing a TW hat.