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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 31, 2002

Rainbow Open in doubt

By Bill Kwon

Sports Shinko's sale of its three golf courses in Hawai'i — in particular, Mililani in Central O'ahu — has golfers asking, "What's going to happen to the Rainbow Open?"

The Mililani Golf Course is open, but many are wondering what will happen to the Rainbow Open, a tournament fixture in Hawai'i.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Since its inception in 1973, the annual tournament has been a fixture on the summer golf calendar, in recent years taking place during the weekend of the U.S. Open in June.

The Rainbow Open has a proud history of champions since the inaugural event was sponsored by Japan Airlines.

David Ishii won the JAL Rainbow Open five times, using his first victory in 1980 as a springboard to a long and productive career on the Japan PGA Tour where he is among the top 10 all-time money winners.

Veteran Lance Suzuki is another five-time champion, winning his first title in 1976 and his fifth 18 years later.

Larry Stubblefield won the event twice — first as a professional in 1975 and again in 1985 after regaining his amateur status.

Greg Meyer is the tournament's only other multiple winner, setting the 54-hole record with a 17-under-par 199 when he won in 1997. He won again in 1999 after Dean Wilson's triumph in 1998.

Clyde Rego, now a professional, enjoys the distinction of being the Rainbow Open's first amateur champion in 1976, the first of several years as a 72-hole tournament.

The Rainbow Open has never been the same after JAL dropped out as the title sponsor, according to Ishii, who set tournament single-round (63) and 72-hole records (22-under-par 266) in his 1982 victory.

"It was the best tournament you could play locally. If you won, you got to play in a Japan tour event," Ishii said.

David Ishii has won the Rainbow Open title five times.

Advertiser library photo

Which is what Ishii did to jump-start his career in Japan. He used sponsor's exemptions from JAL to play in the KBC Augusta in Fukuoka for three straight years (1980-'82).

"The first year, I missed the cut. The second year I finished sixth or seventh, and they asked me to play in the Suntory Open the next week," Ishii recalled.

When Ishii finished sixth in that tournament, Japanese sponsors suddenly showed an interest in him. With exemptions from JAL and Honda, owner of the Pearl Country Club where he is director of golf, Ishii got to play in enough events to make the tour there.

There was no such thing as a qualifying school back then, according to Ishii, who had his first good year there in 1985 to maintain his exempt status until today. He won the JPGA money title in 1987 to receive invitations to the U.S. Open, British Open and the PGA Championship the following year.

Sports Shinko, a Tokyo-based company, took over sponsorship of the Rainbow Open from 1992. The professional winner received $5,000 and a trip for two to La Costa Country Club in Carlsbad, Calif., but did not receive an exemption to a Japan tour event. In October, the company sold the La Costa golf course.

Local developer Bert A. Kobayashi, through his company KG Holdings LLC, purchased Mililani and Sports Shinko's two other golf courses — Pukalani on Maui and Kiahuna on Kaua'i — and adjacent land for $12.4 million.

Wayne Tanigawa, the new owner's director of operations, said all three golf courses will continue to operate with the same employees. But it was too early to say if Mililani will continue to play host to the Rainbow Open, let alone sponsor it.

"We're trying to familiarize ourselves with the golf course operations right now," Tanigawa said. But he added, optimistically, "We will probably continue with the tournament."

That would be good news.

"It's good for the local players. Every year, there are fewer tournaments. So it's good to have it continue," Ishii said.

One player who would like to see that the Rainbow Open — whoever the sponsor may be — continues this year is 2001 winner, Parker McLachlin, a senior on the UCLA golf team. What is the good of being the defending champion if there's no tournament to defend.

Speaking of defending champions, Hale Irwin, who won the Senior Skins Game Saturday for the second straight year and the third time in as many appearances, is glad that the event will continue at the Wailea Gold Course for three more years.

Officials of the Senior Skins Game extended its contract with the Wailea Resort to 2005.

Irwin, who has won eight PGA tournaments in Hawai'i, will finally design and develop his first golf course in the Islands.

"It'll be announced soon," said Irwin, who wouldn't reveal which island the course will be on.

Bill Kwon can be reached at bkwon@aloha.net.