Ted Makalena was at home sweet home during his first win
By Bill Kwon
Ted Makalena – It was nearly seven years after statehood when Ted Makalena became the first Hawai’i golfer to win a PGA Tour event, the 1966 Hawaiian Open, at the Wai’alae Country Club, which was like his second home. He began there as an 8-year-old caddie and became an assistant pro.
Makalena’s seminal victory remains a lasting legacy after creating shock waves nationally and helping local golfers to overcome an inferiority complex.
David Ishii, the winningest professional golfer to come out of the 50th State, was 11 at the time. As a youngster, Ishii didn’t fully realize the significance of Makalena’s victory over an established field of PGA players that included Billy Casper, Doug Sanders, Gene Littler, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Al Geiberger and Raymond Floyd. The Hawaiian Open was only in its second year and Makalena’s winning prize was $8,500, less than what the guy who finished 78th in this year’s Sony Open in Hawai’i earned. But Makalena beat the winners of golf’s two major championships that year — Casper (U.S. Open) and Geiberger (PGA Championship).
Ishii recalled his first thought back then: “Wow, somebody local beat guys from the Mainland.”
Ishii went on to beat guys from the Mainland himself, first at the University of Houston, and then pros in the 1990 Hawaiian Open in following Makalena’s footsteps. Since then, two other native golfers have won on the PGA Tour — Dean Wilson (2006 International) and Parker McLachlin (2007 Legends Reno-Tahoe Open).
Makalena made it all possible for the local guys with his breakthrough victory, according to Ishii. “He was an inspiration. He made it possible for us to think that maybe we can make it as professional golfers.”
Makalena an inspiration for islanders
Makalena inspired others as well. He helped Bob Tom in organizing the Hawai’i Junior Golf Association in 1967 as youngsters all “wanted to be like Ted” with the mindset that if he can do we can do it.
Turning pro two years after graduating from St. Louis High School in 1953, Makalena dominated local golf, winning five straight Hawaiian Opens (before it became a PGA Tour event) from 1960 through 1964. He won 25 tournaments locally and played in six U.S. Open championships, finishing tied for 27th in 1963 at Brookline (Mass.) and tied for 23rd the following year at Congressional (Maryland). But the victory in the 1966 Hawaiian Open was his crowning accomplishment. He was 32 and his future never looked brighter.
Besides the 1967 Hawaiian Open where he finished tied for seventh as the defending champion, Makalena also played on the PGA Tour. In the gallery at two of his stops — Houston Open and Greater New Orleans Open — were his brother Sol, who was in the Army and stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana, and 7-year-old nephew Kalua Makalena, who went on to become an outstanding golfer.
Tragedy Strikes Makalena
Two months before the 1968 Hawaiian Open, which was played in November, Makalena was pulled out of the waters off Waikiki, paralyzed and unconscious after apparently striking his head while diving. He died five days later on Sept. 13, 1968, at 34 with his game still at its peak.
Ishii wonders until this day how good Makalena would have been had he continued playing while still in his prime. “I think he had more talent than any of us,” said Ishii. “It would have been nice to see what he could have done had he been alive to play out his whole (career). All the other guys he played with, like Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez, continued on to play the senior tour. He probably would have been like one of those guys.”
Lee Trevino’s act of kindness
When Trevino won the 1968 Hawaiian Open, he donated his $25,000 purse toward a trust fund for Makalena’s son, Ted Jr., a largesse made possible with his victory in the U.S. Open that year.
Unlike Ishii, who never played with Makalena, Hawai’i golf hall of famer Allan Yamamoto did, two or three times a week with Makalena’s Ala Wai gang that included Masa Kaya, Billy Arakawa and Walter Kawakami.
“If you ever saw someone who was born to play golf, it was him,” Yamamoto said. “He was long and he was straight, which is an unusual combination. It’s usually one or the other.”
Yamamoto followed Makalena during Sunday’s round when he won the 1966 Hawaiian Open. “If I remember correctly, he hit all 18 greens in regulation. It was like it was never in doubt he would win.”
Makalena posted rounds of 66, 71, 66 and 68 for a 72-hole score of 17-under-par 271, setting a tournament record. Nicklaus tied it seven years later, before Ben Crenshaw bettered it by one stroke in the 1976 Hawaiian Open.
That record is gone, but Makalena’s legacy to local golf continues. He was inducted in 1988 as one of the original members of the Hawai’i Golf Hall of Fame and the Hawai’i Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.
The city built and opened a municipal golf course in 1971, naming it in honor of Ted Makalena — a local boy who made good and made us all proud.