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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reluctant Rittenhouse gains Hall

Honolulu Advertiser Special: Golf page

By Bill Kwon

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Lenore Muraoka Rittenhouse

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Lenore Muraoka Rittenhouse knows what to do with a golf club, tennis racket or basketball. But ask her to stand before an audience and say a few words, now that's an entirely different ball game.

So, don't blame Rittenhouse if she feels a mixture of dread and elation during her induction into the Hawai'i Sports Hall of Fame Tuesday night at the Honolulu Country Club.

It's for that very reason Rittenhouse initially didn't want to accept the honor when informed of her selection, along with legendary water sportsman Richard "Buffalo" Keaulana, in this year's class of inductees.

Rittenhouse agreed to come from her home in North Carolina only after being convinced by friends here that she should do so, not for herself, but for her parents, Louis and Myrna Muraoka, and in memory of her sister Lynne Chow, who died from breast cancer a year ago. Also, as a way to thank those who supported her dreams of being a professional golfer.

"It's going to be hard, but I'm going to try to do my best," said Rittenhouse, a self-admitted introvert. She even consulted a psychologist to help her making it through the upcoming night.

This is someone who played 497 tournaments in 20 years on the LPGA Tour, stared down opponents across the net playing tennis for Roosevelt High School, and played against the boys in pick-up basketball games growing up in Mānoa.

Basketball was her first love, said Rittenhouse. Roosevelt, though, didn't have a girls' basketball program, so she played tennis. Playing basketball in citywide women's leagues, Rittenhouse caught the attention of Patsy Dung, University of Hawai'i women's coach, and wound up as the Rainbows' starting point guard as a freshman, all 5 feet 3 of her.

"My four-game career came to an end when I injured my leg," said Rittenhouse. The broken left ankle ended her roundball career, but she followed a smaller bouncing ball almost immediately.

Rittenhouse had never golfed until 1973, her freshman year at UH. "In my first lesson, I had a cast on my leg," she recalled. "If it wasn't for getting hurt, I wouldn't be playing golf. That's how I got started in golf."

Her first professional teacher was Walter Kawakami, whom she credits as the one most instrumental in developing her game. "One day, he told me, 'I've taught you everything I know. See another instructor.' Which, I thought, was pretty neat of him to do," said Rittenhouse, who went to local golf guru Allan Yamamoto.

"The guy is so talented. He's a wizard with the short game," said Rittenhouse, who would spend hours at Yamamoto's Golf House on South King St., across from the old Honolulu Stadium, when she wasn't attending classes. She remembers Yamamoto giving pointers to a promising 18-year-old golfer named David Ishii, who had just graduated from Kaua'i High School.

She picked up a few pointers herself, and played four years for the UH women's golf team. "I had two 'senior years' because of my basketball injury in my freshman year," said Rittenhouse, who graduated in 1978 with a degree in physical education.

Ron Castillo Sr., the UH golf coach in her final year, calls Rittenhouse "the most natural athlete I ever had."

"She was new to the game but was athletically gifted," added Yamamoto. "That ability took her far. She learned by watching and always asking, 'Why this? Why that?' She was a hard worker. I hear she's still working hard, going to nursing school and teaching golf classes." That and also raising her son, William, now 18.

After playing a year on a mini-tour in California, Rittenhouse made it through the LPGA Q-School on her first attempt in 1980. "I wasn't planning on making it, so I came home," she said. But through the efforts of Kawakami and, in particular, Mike Okihiro, a neurologist, a hui was formed to sponsor her first year on the LPGA Tour.

Okihiro knew Lenore's mother, who was a nurse at Kuakini Hospital. He invited Rittenhouse to play at Mid-Pacific Country Club and later caddied for her when she played LPGA events at Ko Olina and Kapolei.

"She's a pioneer like Jackie Pung. The first one from Hawai'i to win an LPGA tournament after a long time," said Okihiro, uncle of PGA Tour's Dean Wilson. Rittenhouse, who played under her maiden name Muraoka for the first seven years on tour, won the United Virginia Bank Classic in 1983, 28 years after Pung won the Jacksonville Open.

Other members of the hui include Joe Nishimoto, Don Maruyama, Ron Otani, Ray Tanaka and Al Fujisawa. They'll be there Tuesday along with Kawakami, Yamamoto and Ishii.

With such good friends in attendance, there's no reason for Rittenhouse to be nervous.

Bill Kwon can be reached at billkwonrhs@aol.com