The new seasonbegan last week, at the Sony Open, the tournament the players all call Hawaii.The Mercedes-Benz Championship, the one Vijay Singh won at Kapalua in the firstweek of January? That's a dressed-up exhibition, winners only, another chancefor the rich to get richer. The real start--caddie changes in place, new gizmoson the practice tee, virgin irons in the bag, the exquisite grind of the Tour,all in the name of staying out there--began for real last week. Charles Howell,who finished a shot back, said you start every season with all manner ofgolfing resolutions, but they're all on a short leash, one bad shot away frombeing discarded. The veteran Paul Goydos, a master of deadpan with a fittingnickname, had only one good week in 2006, a second-place finish in the ChryslerChampionship, the final full-field event of the year, providing him with a$466,400 paycheck that allowed him to save his card. "I spent 10 weekshoping that what worked at the end of last year would work in the new one,"he said. It did. By winning Hawaii (with new irons in an old carry bag), heearned a spot in Kapalua next year and playing privileges through the end of'08. Happy New Year, Sunshine.
Goydos began hisTour career in the Greg Norman era, when the conventional wisdom was that theseason commenced at Doral, the week the Tour moved from California to Miami.But guys wrote that only because Norman had the microphone and he didn't muchlike playing in the West Coast events. The truth is that golf has no springtraining. The Tour's checkered flag, the players in Hawaii will tell you, blowsin a trade wind.
For most of Sundayit looked as if Luke Donald would take his third career title or Howell hissecond. To win the Sony you don't have to beat too many name players. The fieldat the Waialae Country Club was filled with kids, not only the teenagers(Michelle Wie, missed cut; Tadd Fujikawa, 20th) but also the fresh Q schoolgraduates, the Nationwide upgraders, the various conditionals. Doug LaBelle II,straight off the Nationwide, tied for fourth and cashed a nice check for$204,750. (And isn't that what it's all about?) Stephen Marino, thequintessential pink-cheeked rookie with plenty of game, learned to deal with acrowd by playing his Thursday and Friday rounds with Wie--and made it to theweekend.
Brendan de Jongemissed the cut but provided the new season's first travel horror story. He washome in Charlotte last Wednesday when he got a call informing him that he had aspot in the field off the alternate list. He arrived at the Honolulu airport onThursday at 3:30 a.m., was on the tee four hours later, went out and shot 69 inthe first Tour round of his life, then screwed up the story by missing the cut.As travel stories go, it will soon get topped. For now, though, it's the bestone making the rounds.
The kids wereeverywhere, Fujikawa (sidebar, left) most especially. "He has a personalitywhere he feeds off the crowd," said one of his playing partners, NathanGreen. Not everybody does, and it bodes well for Fujikawa's future. Still, inan event that's out of a time warp, on Sunday your eye went to veterans likethe 42-year-old Goydos, gray and necky (in his honest phrase, a "full-timefather and a part-time golfer"), and to other grown-ups at other times inthe week.
Most of theveterans, Goydos among them, stayed at the spiffy hotel, the Kahala, thatfronts the golf course on one side and the ocean on the other. The Kahala is atestament to '60s glamour, airy and space-age modern, and you half expectGeorge Jetson--or maybe Dave Marr--to emerge from the Jacuzzi. Corey Pavin wasat the hotel and so was Adam Sandler, for reasons that had nothing to do withgolf or Happy Gilmore. Sandler was on holiday, but the golfers were not.Predawn on Saturday, there was Davis Love III making the short walk to work. Heknows the deal: If you want later tee times, you have to play better. Last yearhe won for the first time since 2003 but only after not making Tom Lehman'sRyder Cup team and not being picked for it, either. One of Love's goals for2007 is to secure a spot early on the Presidents Cup team.
Love and Lehmanplayed together on Thursday and Friday, but last year's Ryder Cup loss to theEuropeans didn't come up. They closed the book on that last year when Lehmansent a six-page, handwritten letter to Love. Davis kept his return letter to apage. New year, fresh start. Lehman began the new season wearing red (shirt),white (puka beads) and blue (pants). For the first time in years he was using aconventional putter--he never won with the long wand.
On their 36th holeboth golfers had to sink putts to make the cut on the number, Lehman from abouteight paces, Love from about six. Their third, Tim Herron, was already out ofit. Nick Faldo was working the booth for Golf Channel in the first year of a15-year deal by which the cable channel will show the Thursday and Fridayrounds of every PGA Tour event. Faldo, his playing career essentially over andnow a full-time broadcaster (and next year's European Ryder Cup captain), knewfrom his own life the stress involved in those putts. You don't want to comeall the way to Honolulu and miss the cut. There are as many battles on Fridayas there are on Sunday. After Lehman made his putt, Faldo noted that Love'ssix-footer now was only harder. Love, never one to bang them home, sent hisball toward the hole at about a quarter mile an hour. Finally, it dropped. Itwas good TV. Herron, with the wife and kids, spent the weekend poolside at theKahala.
Meanwhile, back atthe Waialae range, parked right next to Vijay himself, there was John Daly,single (for now) and playing only on sponsors' exemptions. A teaching pro,flown in from San Diego, was watching his every shot. When was the last timeyou saw John Daly on a tournament range under the eye of a teaching pro? Maybenever. Happy New Year, JD. You can let it out now.
New year, newteenage sensation. (Fujikawa, taking Wie's old spot.) New year, new TV star.They couldn't be more different, but this year's Camilo Villegas (for now) isthe surfing golfer, Will MacKenzie, or Willie Mac, as Faldo has taken tocalling him, a personable 32-year-old (that is, not a kid) who had the temerityto actually stop playing the game for several years to spend more time pursuingvarious water sports. He's a good golfer and a free spirit (by the modeststandards of the PGA Tour), who revealed last week that he prefers those littleankle socklets over the conventional ones, which he finds cumbersome and toowarm. He also said headcovers do nothing to protect metal woods and that hedoesn't bother with them "because I'd lose 'em as fast as I got 'emanyway." He also said that he has attention deficit disorder, which hetreats by letting his mind drift every which way on the course, then"hyperfocusing" on the shot at hand. He wears the brim of his hat flat,like many Latino ballplayers.
Paul Azinger,Faldo's foil in the ABC broadcast booth last year and his opposing captain inthe Ryder Cup next year, returned to one of his favorite Tour courses lastweek. Waialae is an understated gem lined with palm trees pocked by errantshots, a Seth Raynor design that Azinger (along with Goydos and others) feelsshould be mentioned in the same breath as Westchester and Harbour Town andColonial, but isn't. Azinger first played Hawaii in 1985 and won there in 2000.But having turned 47 on Jan. 6, Azinger wasn't talking about the old days lastweek--or classic old courses, for that matter. He was talking about money,about Tour wins, about keeping your card, about fast starts in the new year.Last year he was working two jobs, broadcaster and player. Next year he'll havetwo jobs, Ryder Cup captain and player. This year all he wants to do is win."Get a win and get the two-year exemption with it," Azinger said. Inother words, secure his playing status on Tour almost until age 50.
He played well atHawaii, finishing in 13th place and earning $89,142. In the new year he'strailing Goydos by one win and $846,858. In the first real week of the newyear, Azinger wasn't talking about FedEx Cup points, and neither was anybodyelse. He was talking about getting out of the gate fast--the faster, thebetter. Right now, Paul Goydos is the envy of the Tour, or at least of the guyswho played Hawaii.
Compared to the amazing performance of Tadd Fujikawa,another befuddling MC by Michelle Wie was simply old news
MANY OF the Sony Open spectators came to follow oneHawaiian teenage golf prodigy, Michelle Wie, and ended up mesmerized byanother, Tadd Fujikawa. The kid was almost a freak show: barely 16, a ballmarker over five feet, sporting a game filled with swagger and a delightful,polite off-course manner. The amateur golfer marched down the fairways with histoes out, and his fist pumps brought to mind not Tiger Woods, always looking tobury the competition, but Seve Ballesteros circa 1979, when Seve oozed joy.
Master Tadd--a barrel-chested judo brown belt, aHawaiian of Japanese descent born almost three months premature, a sophomore atpublic Moanalua High in Honolulu--is a known talent. Last year, at 15, hebecame the youngest golfer to play in a U.S. Open. He made it into the Sony ina local qualifier in which 12 amateurs played for a single spot. (Wie, who hasan endorsement deal with Sony, played on a sponsor's exemption.) Last Friday,Fujikawa became the youngest golfer to make a cut in a PGA Tour event in 50years. On Saturday at windblown Waialae, he shot a 66, a score that VijaySingh, Davis Love III, David Toms, John Daly and almost every other pro in thefield would have paid money for. The Taddster (his nickname) knew he had onething going for him that the 72 pros playing on the weekend did not: "I'mplaying each shot as if I have nothing to lose," he said. He played loose,bombing driver on holes where the pros chose more prudent lines. His rounds of71, 66, 66 and 72, five under par, left him in 20th place, nine shots behindPaul Goydos. Tadd would have earned about $50,000 had he been playing formoney.
At the other end of the results sheet sat "poorMichelle Wie." A handful of veteran pros were using that phrase, indifferent ways and for different reasons. She's 17, a senior at theprestigious, private Punahou School with an acceptance letter to Stanford andendorsement deals worth millions. She played last week wearing a watch by Omega(one of her sponsors) and her ears tucked into a schoolboy hat from Nike(another sponsor). A handler from the William Morris Agency toweled off theteenager's sweat before her TV interviews. She was a pro in the press tent andwith the public, and on the course she never gave up. But over her ball shelooked lost.
Wie shot rounds of 78 and 76 and missed the cut by 14shots. As a 14-year-old amateur--playing on the same kind of local-hero highFujikawa did last week--she missed the Sony cut by a shot. She was the BigWiesy then. Now her swing looks short and out of synch, hindered to an unknowndegree by a strained right wrist. She doesn't know which event she'll play nextor what's wrong with her game, and her father, B.J., didn't pretend to have theanswers, either. She's someplace she's never been. "I worry a little bitfor Michelle," said Luke Donald, who tied for second. "All she's[experiencing] now is missing cuts and not dealing with a lot ofsuccess."
The two teenage Hawaiian golfers met last week for thefirst time, only because a newspaper photographer got them together. The6'1" Wie towered over Fujikawa. Then the tournament began, and each tookanother step to wherever it is he or she is going.
In the first real event of the new year, Azinger wasn'ttalking about FedEx Cup points, and neither was anybody else. HE WAS TALKINGABOUT GETTING OUT OF THE GATE FAST.
Photograph by Sam Greenwood/WireImage.com
BEACH BEAST Goydos hit 51 of 72 greens but got up and down for par on 17 of the 21 he missed.
TADD TERRIFIC Fujikawa, 16, led the field in greens hit in regulation.
FRED VUICH (3)
SIDESHOWS MacKenzie (left) came into focus, while Azinger (center) fought for his card and Howell finished second, again.