Nanakuli High School’s state golf championship might have to wait, but the folks at Ko Olina Golf Club involved with Ho’okipa I Po’okela (Commitment to Excellence) are not discouraged. They learn more from the kids than the kids learn from them.
The program is in its fourth year. It started with 18 kids from Nanakuli, Ka Waihona and Nanaikapono Elementary Schools. Each year, six more fourth-graders come in. Last year, tennis was added to the "long-term competitive program."
"One of the things we wanted was to make it sustainable," says Ko Olina director of golf Greg Nichols. "We didn’t want to do an introduction, then say, ‘See ya.’ "
The inspiration initially was to create something where kids who might not have an opportunity to try golf could learn about sports and sportsmanship, along with life skills, patience, perseverance, responsibility and character development through the sport, with all its unique foibles and frustrations.
"The best players … guys like Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, those guys didn’t have anything," Nichols said. "I thought if we could get a couple kids like that who were really hungry and wanted to learn, then we could give them the opportunity."
One of the original goals was to have a boys and girls state championship "within six years" for Nanakuli, which didn’t have enough interest for a team at the time. That might not happen, but those involved quickly learned it was not a priority.
"We learned more than the kids," Nichols said. "I have a thousand times more respect for school teachers now. The kids are bright, they want to learn, but we’ve had to be more patient. … They have such great spirits and work so hard every week to learn the game and try to get better."
Ho’okipa is part of Ko Olina’s Play Golf America outreach, financed through Ko Olina Charities and supported by the resort’s golf pros and golf distributors such as Nike, TaylorMade Adidas and U.S. Kids Clubs. Students apply by writing essays explaining why their participation would help them "be a better member of your school and community." They also are selected based on academic achievements, community and school service, extracurricular and athletic participation.
Those chosen receive golf instruction almost every Wednesday of the year, with the emphasis on working from "the hole back," so they can develop a solid short game. They get custom-fitted clubs, clothing and other equipment, educational and instructional materials, field trips and mentoring opportunities.
To remain eligible, they have to follow program rules, a code of conduct, maintain a minimum GPA, participate in community service, mentor younger students and demonstrate Ho’okipa’s six core values, which range from showing integrity and perseverance to taking responsibility and caring for the environment.
With the addition of six tennis players, 24 kids are now involved. Two students got into Kamehameha and had to leave because they couldn’t get back home in time on Wednesdays. One of the transfers, seventh-grader Remany Sanchez, still shows up once in a while. While she was surprised at first that the game "was actually hard," she comes back because she found it fun.
Quade Kawai-Jose, an eighth-grader at Nanakuli Intermediate, didn’t miss a class last year. He got involved with Ho’okipa because he thought it would help him focus in school. Day One was illuminating.
"I thought I knew what I was doing," Kawai-Jose said, "until I tried to hit the ball."
Like Kawai-Jose, Waianae seventh-grader Makanaola Meyers is in her fourth year. She was attracted to golf’s solitude and inspired by meeting Paula Creamer. Now she’s interested in the game as a career, as are others. Their interests also include becoming a police officer, tennis player, basketball player, teacher, wedding planner, pilot, bank president, Miss Aloha Hula and joining the Army.
"We’re not trying to create stars, people like Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam or even Michelle Wie," Nichols says. "All we’re asking for is their best. That’s good enough for us.
"We want them to take the lessons they learn back to Nanakuli and make a difference in their community."
It might already be happening. Myron Brumaghin received clubs and lessons when he retired as a Nanakuli principal two years ago. He finds the game "humbling" and appreciates its demands for patience, calm and focus.
"Those are the kinds of things Greg is imparting to the kids," Brumaghin says. "When you look at it — the patience, right attitude, self-confidence, all those things that build character, that’s what golf is all about. So whatever you learn here you can apply any place.
"What he is doing, in my opinion, is great. Great. He can only take so many kids, but whatever he gets, he’s making a difference."