Casual fans of Trojan golf may not know how close Kunantaev came to giving up on his dream. Following a promising start to his high school golfing career, when he finished third as a freshman and tied for second as a sophomore, he nearly threw in the towel when a disappointing junior season culminated in a ninth-place finish at state.
“The goal coming in four years ago, I told my dad I knew I had enough talent to win a state championship—at least one,” he said. “I?had a goal to win at least two.
“ I?had a chance as a freshman, I had a chance as a sophomore—and then I just became complacent with my game and really didn’t work at it as hard as I needed to.
“You could see by the results my junior year, I really struggled. I didn’t put in the hours on the course and wasn’t mentally prepared to win or play good golf.
“A couple of times I actually wanted to quit and give up the game,” Kunantaev said. “I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted, and knew I was much better than that. It was really disappointing.”
That’s when his parents, Kakim and Karla, stepped in.
“I tried to give it up, but my parents wouldn’t let me quit,” he added. “They said, ‘You’re not a quitter, and you’re going to prove it.’”
Discovering the game
His parents’ bedrock support of his golf aspirations is itself a conversion story.
“I’ve played golf for probably the last seven years of my life,” Kunantaev said. “I used to be huge into tennis with my dad and my sister (Naila, a state tournament qualifier). We’d go out and play pretty much every night.”
Playing at the Sports Complex put the young Kunantaev in close proximity to the Hillsboro Municipal Golf Course.
“I used to love tennis, but I saw that seventh green right next to the tennis court and I started asking my mom, ‘What’s that about?’ She said, ‘It’s golf—I don’t know anything about it.’
“I said, ‘I kind of want to play that.’ My dad had a set of left-handed clubs in the garage and pretty much never used them. So I just started swinging them one day and fell in love with the game.”
Daniel’s change of interest didn’t thrill his parents at first.
“They were like, ‘No, you need to play tennis, we don’t know anything about golf. It’s just not your place to be.’”
They finally relented to his desire to participate in the city’s summer program called Hook a Kid on Golf.
“I got hooked on it,” he said.
Kunantaev’s natural talent was apparent early, even to his future high school coach, Scott O’Hare.
“Coach O’Hare was practicing with me one day in the junior golf program, and told my mom I could be something special in golf and I had the potential to be really good,” Kunantaev said. “I think that was the point where they started thinking, ‘OK, maybe we’ll let him try this out.’”
In preparation for his senior season, Kunantaev estimated he was on the local course sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day.
“I worked extremely hard on my game this off season,” Kunantaev said. “I got mentally and physically prepared to play again. I hit balls all day, every day for the past year.
“Obviously, it gets tiring and there are times when I question why I’m doing this—and whether or not I should be doing it,” he said. “But I guess when you win a state championship, it makes up for it.”
Key to his commitment is his love for the sport.
“I like to watch other people play, and I like to play myself, obviously,” Kunantaev said. “I?think to be good at golf you have to fall in love with the whole aspect of the game. Once you do that, you can be really good.”
He said he loves the way game conditions change, even day by day.
“It’s a different challenge every day,” Kunantaev said. “You’re never going to have the same shot. It’s constantly evolving, and your game has to be, too.
“Once you get to the point where you feel you’re playing good golf, it slips away,” he added. “You have to build it up to the point where you’re playing good again. So it’s a continual challenge—and I think that’s what I like most about it.”
Looking to the future
Kunantaev said he plans to keep pursing those challenges. This summer he plans to compete in several amateur tournaments in Kansas and try to qualify for the U.S. Golf Association junior and amateur tournaments.
This fall, he’ll be heading to Purdue University, where he has secured a spot on the golf roster and will compete on a limited scholarship to start with. In the classroom, he plans to pursue a degree in health sciences and pre-medicine.
“I obviously would like to play in a lot of tournaments there,” Kunantaev said. “College golf is going to be so much more difficult. It’s a whole other level where anyone can win at any time.”
Any thoughts of turning pro someday?
“Growing up, it’s any kids’ dream to be pro, but it’s extremely competitive,” he said. “If I put in a good four years in college, we can see what happens. But I’m not planning on it anytime soon. I’m looking forward to just getting a good degree from Purdue.”