Okita keeps swinging in game of his lifetime
By Bill Kwon
Hal Okita remembers when he played a round of golf for the second time in his life.
Ted Makalena, his high school classmate at Saint Louis, took him to Waialae Country Club. Okita, then 18 and good enough of an athlete to play for the Crusaders and University of Dayton baseball teams, was frustrated as he hacked his way around the course. He was about ready to quit when Makalena's dad drove up in a golf cart and asked how he was doing.
"Not good," Okita replied. "Never give up, keep swinging," the elder Makalena told him. "It's a lifetime game. Unlike football, basketball and baseball, you can golf all your life. Other sports, you cannot."
Okita has never forgotten that moment or advice, and he's forever indebted.
"That's the beauty of the game," said Okita, recalling that flashback. "Even at 77 going on 78 (next month), golf is that kind of game. We all have our niche. We all aren't Tadd Fujikawa and David Ishii, but we have a golf handicap so we can compete with others. And the people you meet, outstanding."
Evidently, people think the same of Okita, who received a distinguished service award from the Hawaii State Golf Association. During his 27 years with the HSGA, Okita served two separate terms as president and helped to start its golf course rating program.
"I appreciate it very much. A lot of the honor should go to people I've been around with," Okita said.
"You don't get involved in golf to get the honors but to really give back. And I have been blessed being able to give back to the game by being a part of the HSGA."
Okita has seen the HSGA grow to nearly 17,000 members as a result of its affiliation with the USGA's GHIN handicap system. He sees even further growth for the HSGA under its new president, Paul Ogawa.
Okita, who was general manager of Royal Kunia during the early stages of its development and later GM at Mid-Pacific Country Club, continues to give back to the game. He will continue to volunteer where needed, including as a rules official for Interscholastic League of Honolulu golf tournaments.
And, yes, he will continue golfing, playing twice a week with his Tuesday and Saturday gangs at Navy-Marine and Leilehua.
He considers himself fortunate that the best job he ever had — 27 years in the U.S. Army before retiring as a full colonel — has led to having both a great family and an opportunity to contribute to the game of golf.
Okita says his wife of 53 years, Rowena, is the real backbone of the family. "I couldn't have done it without her because being an Army wife is a tough job," said Okita, who remembers once leaving for Vietnam with Rowena looking after their four youngsters and the pet German shepherd that had just given birth to eight pups.
The kids are grown now. Okita is known more to some people as Teri Okita's father. She's a CBS correspondent based in Los Angeles. But he's also proud of Harolynn Wiley, a professor at George Mason University; Elissa Kuhr, an elementary school teacher in San Rafael, Calif., and Michael, an Army colonel in his second tour of duty in Iraq.
His Army background got Okita involved in golf. As a civilian employee, he was in charge of recreational services and the oversight of the three Army golf courses in Hawai'i — Leilehua, Kalakaua and Fort Shafter.
"I had two good mentors in Walter Nagorski and Earl Howard. They encouraged me to get involved in golf, with the rules of golf," said Okita, who helped in getting Shafter renamed the Nagorski Course in honor of the late golf pro.
Tom Meeks, longtime USGA rules official, is another mentor. They became friends when Okita served for 10 years as the Honolulu representative on the National Public Links committee.
"That was a super experience and led to knowing some of the best amateur golfers in the state," Okita said.
Okita has never played to a handicap lower than 14, and that was years ago.
"I guess guys who can't, teach or administrate," says Okita. But he hasn't stopped swinging a golf club since that day at Waialae nearly 60 years ago. Nor has he stopped encouraging others to keep on playing.
Okita remembers an ILH tournament at Olomana several years ago when a young girl was trying to hit a shot over a drainage ditch.
"She was having a lot of problems. She asked if she could quit and walk off the course," Okita recalled. "I told her, you don't want to quit."
"I'm lying 12," she said.
"That's OK," Okita told her, encouragingly. "Good golfers sometimes get those high scores. Arnold Palmer took a 12 one time. She says to me, 'who's Arnold Palmer?' "
The beauty of it, according to Okita, is that the girl went on to finish the hole and her round, and probably is still golfing today.
Bill Kwon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org