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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 26, 2002

Two longtime course superintendents retiring

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By Bill Kwon

They are golf's unsung heroes. The ones who make not only the golf course look good, but the head golf professionals as well. They are, of course, the golf course superintendents.

Bob Tokigawa, who has been the head superintendent at Mid-Pacific Country Club, will be calling it a career after 27 years on the job.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Two of Hawai'i's more respected members of that fraternity will be retiring this year — Bob Itamoto, for 37 years the only head superintendent at the Mauna Kea golf course, and Bob Tokigawa, who will end 21 years in a similar position at the Mid-Pacific Country Club.

What do golf course superintendents do when they retire?

Why, play golf, of course.

Out of habit, they will probably still pluck a weed or two they see on a green or replace a fairway divot as they are wont to do now. Habits die hard.

"I'm going to play a lot of golf and travel a little," said Itamoto, who will officially retire Dec. 31.

The job has always come first, Itamoto kiddingly likes to point out.

He was hired as Mauna Kea's superintendent Feb. 1, 1965, and got married four months later. Now, Ethel, his wife of 37 years, will come first.

Tokigawa, who will retire Nov. 30, will also be golfing — but in a different locale. He and his wife of 36 years, Betty, will be moving to Bloomington, Ind., to be near their two daughters and grandchildren.

Both men have seen tremendous changes in the local golf industry in their combined 58 years as superintendents.

"We were the only battleship, the only guys, on the Kohala Coast when Mauna Kea opened," Itamoto said. "Every tourist who golfed wanted to play Mauna Kea and we captured the market."

Now a dozen resort courses stretch along the Big Island's Kona coastline from Mauna Kea to Keauhou Bay.

"The resort hotels all have their own customers, but everybody still wants to play Mauna Kea. And we have a built-in clientele. They all come back, year after year," Itamoto said.

That puts a lot of pressure on a golf course superintendent, according to Itamoto. Especially at a high-profile resort course.

"They usually all belong to a private country club or play a lot of great courses," he said of the golfers. "They're used to the best of everything. They expect us to provide the same conditions they're used to playing. And I think we put out a pretty good track."

"I'm going to play a lot of golf and travel a little," says Bob Itamoto of his retirement plans. Itamoto has worked at Mauna Kea for 37 years.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Itamoto still marvels at how it all began 37 years ago with Mauna Kea's architect, the late Robert Trent Jones. It was a revolutionary concept, turning barren lava fields into lush, grassy fairways.

When Jones showed it could be done, other golf courses soon followed.

It was Jones who hired Itamoto, who had been the head superintendent at the O'ahu Country Club for two years.

"He told me, 'I'm the architect. You're the superintendent,' " Itamoto said.

"I really enjoyed working with him. I rank him as one of the greatest golf architects. He was way ahead of his time. The layout at Mauna Kea is so outstanding. You'll never get this layout anywhere else."

Jones' son, Robert Trent Jones Jr., was eventually called in a several years later to make seven of Mauna Kea's severely undulating greens friendlier after some of owner Laurance Rockefeller's friends complained.

"Jones (Sr.) felt golfers were getting too good. He thought par 72 is what you should shoot. 'That's why it's called par,' " Itamoto recalled the legendary golf architect saying.

Besides making sure that a golf course is in excellent condition, superintendents also need to be aware of environmental concerns, especially when it comes to the use of fertilizers and chemicals, according to both Itamoto and Tokigawa.

Both began as golfers — Itamoto caddying from the age of 12 while growing up in Wahiawa, and Tokigawa doing the same in his native town of Kapa'a, Kaua'i.

"I wasn't good enough to be a pro, but I wanted to get involved in the golf business," said Itamoto, a 1955 Leilehua High graduate who later got a degree in agriculture at Colorado State.

He returned to the Islands in 1960, first working at Barbers Point, the first golf course in Hawai'i using a hybrid Tifton 328 Bermuda grass, and then at the O'ahu Country Club for two years.

Caddying for another golfer, Itamoto saw Tokigawa win the 1954 Navy-Marine Open. Tokigawa, who is 74, was stationed at Schofield Barracks at the time.

After military service, Tokigawa graduated from Bradley University and was an assistant pro at a golf course in Peoria, Ill., where both daughters were born. Tokigawa moved back to Hawai'i in 1980 and a year later he became the head superintendent at Mid-Pac.

With daughters Jean, a chemical engineer with Eli Lilly & Co., and Paula, an optometrist, both living in Indiana, Bloomington is where the Tokigawas will call home.

"I've been really fortunate working at Mid-Pac," Tokigawa said.

"He's very conscientious. You'll always see him with a weeder in his hand," said Mark Sousa, Mid-Pac's head pro for the past 25 years. "He lives on property and always patrols the course, walking his dogs at night."

The Lanikai Country Club plans a farewell golf tournament for Tokigawa in conjunction with its annual turkey shoot Nov. 17.

The Hawai'i Golf Course Superintendents Association also plans a tournament in November at Mauna Kea, honoring both men.

"The guy's a wealth of information," said Charles Park, Mauna Kea's general manager, about his outgoing golf superintendent. "He has devoted 38 years of his life to this resort."

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