Okamura leads Maui Open after strong finish in windy conditions

KAHULUI – With conditions worsening and his score 2 over par through 12 holes, Garrett Okamura was just trying to stay in contact with the field in the first round of the Maui Open on Saturday at The Dunes at Maui Lani.

The course’s head professional instead found five birdies in the final six holes – two of them on chip-ins – and will wake up today with a three-stroke lead over T.J. Kua.

“I haven’t done that recently, not at all, so that was a surprise,” Okamura said after his 3-under 69 left him as the only player in red numbers. “I will take it, that is for sure.”

Vernon Patao, a U.S. Olympic weightlifter in 1992 and 1996, was third at 73, while defending champion Alex Chiarella, a Seabury Hall graduate who just finished his freshman season at the University of San Diego, was at 74. Four players were tied at 75.

Okamura, a graduate from Baldwin High School in 2000 and the University of Hawaii-Hilo in 2005, got to even with birdies on the 13th and 14th and parred No. 15 before boosting into overdrive with his 15-yard chip-in on the par-4 16th.

He followed with a bump-and-run chip from just off the green on the 190-yard 17th before he boomed his 3-wood within 15 feet from 270 yards on the 588-yard par-5 finishing hole and just missed eagle.

“I was just thinking, ‘Try and keep that 2 over, try to make some pars,’ ” Okamura said. “I had just gotten through Amen Corner, which is 8, 9, 10, 11, so then I got through 12 and we had some good birdie holes coming up, maybe finish at even.

“When I birdied 13, 14, I was feeling pretty good. Then 16, 17 was truly a blessing – 69 is a bonus.”

He said he will take a similar approach in his round today.

“Just try to make pars, take the birdies when you can, limit the mistakes,” Okamura said. “The wind really picked up there down the stretch.”

Okamura smiled when asked if he has a home-course advantage.

“One might say that, yes,” he said.

Kua, a 23-year-old graduate of Kamehameha Kapalama and UH-Manoa, had not played the course since he was a youth golfer before a practice round on Friday. He was 2 under through 16 before finishing with back-to-back bogeys.

“The last time I came out here 10 years ago, it was just as windy,” Kua said. “I knew what I was getting into and I was trying to prepare for it as much as I could. I made two bogeys to finish, that’s why I’m a little salty right now.”

Kua won the Mid-Pacific Open in April, but said a title in the Maui Open would rank right behind it.

“You always try to come out here to win every time, so to get that done would be really special,” he said. “I stuck to the game plan today even when I lost a couple strokes here and there, got the pars that I needed and I will take that.”

Patao, a 43-year-old amateur, is a Maui County firefighter stationed on Lanai.

“I just want to hit the ball straight and play well,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens.”

Patao has brought his handicap index to a 2.6 with intense work after a long stretch away from the game.

“I played from 8th grade until I got to high school and then I quit for 20-plus years,” he said. “Then these last 2 1/2 years, I have been playing a lot.”

Patao said he brings the same mindset to golf as he had in the gym.

“I started playing golf because I can’t play tennis because of my foot, so the last 2 1/2, three years I have worked just as hard at golf as I ever did for the Olympics,” he said. “Same mentality as far as the work ethic.”

Chiarella was at even par through eight holes before hitting his tee shot out of bounds on nine and ending up with double bogey. He made a bogey on 10 and another double on 11.

“I managed to battle back and finish at 74, which I think is pretty good in these conditions,” he said.

“I am definitely still in this thing. The conditions out here aren’t easy, this course can fluctuate from very low to very high. For Garrett to shoot 69 is unbelievable, that is a great round out here.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com