Hawaii Pearl Open still the gem locally
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
Where else but the Hawai'i Pearl Open could you find a 64-year-old guy who has played in more PGA Tour events than anyone but Miller Barber and a sixth-grade girl hitting off the same tee?
Or Hawai'i Golf Hall of Famer and six-time Pearl champion David Ishii giving his slot to tiny 12-year-old Japanese amateur Masamichi Ito, who was first alternate?
The 32nd HPO starts tomorrow at Pearl Country Club. Its purse has soared from $10,000 to $80,000 since 1979. It is the largest purse locally but hardly big money by tour standards. Yet Pearl's depth and diversity remain consistently astonishing, and a little quirky.
Pearl has always drawn top players from Asia, Canada, U.S. mini-tours and Hawai'i. Recently, it has also been a haven for gifted juniors.
It has a history of attracting the masses, through economic downturns, 9/11 and anything else. There were 112 golfers for 23 spots at Tuesday's qualifier. Allisen Corpuz, 11, led a mob of precocious juniors trying to earn their way in and follow in the spikeless footsteps of Michelle Wie and Tadd Fujikawa.
"They read articles about kids who came before," said Ishii, Pearl's director of golf. "Michelle and Tadd, they know them. Now they all want to come. At the qualifying, we had 40 from Japan. Most can't drive a cart. We had to pair them up and make sure there were two drivers in every group or they couldn't play."
It was the first open tournament to invite Wie, in 2002. Three weeks later, she would become the LPGA's youngest qualifier and soon after all kinds of barriers fell.
"Michelle started off at 12 at Pearl and got famous," says Ishii. "So maybe Allisen can play well and start to get recognition outside Hawai'i. She's 11 years old and she hits it as far as boys that are 12, 13, 14."
Two years ago, Ryo Ishikawa — Japan's "Bashful Prince" — finished 10th at Pearl. That came three weeks after he turned pro at age 16, in front of 300 journalists. Now Ishikawa is the face of Japan golf and was No. 1 on last year's JGTO money list.
Azuma Yano won that 2008 Pearl, after playing the first two rounds with Cyd Okino. At 14, Okino was in the midst of winning three straight Hawai'i Open women's titles. Yano would go on to be No. 2 on the JGTO money list.
A year earlier, and a month after finishing 20th at the Sony Open in Hawai'i, Fujikawa stuck his approach shot to a foot on the final hole to win by a shot over three-time champion Gregory Meyer.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Hawai'i resident Dave Eichelberger, 64, has made the Pearl Open a regular stop among many regular stops. The 1999 U.S. Senior Open champion has played 1,240 PGA Tour events between the regular, Champions and Nationwide tours. Only Barber has played more.
Ishii, who calls the now-14-year-old Ito a favorite this week, was low amateur at the inaugural HPO. He won the next year, 11 months after turning pro, and is still playing — very well — at age 54.
So is Kiyoshi Murota, whose two Pearl victories jump-started his career in Japan. He and Ishii, who share the same birthdate, have combined for 20 JGTO wins.
Murota captured his second Pearl title in 2002, playing in a final group with Dinesh Chand and Dean Wilson. All had won on the JGTO Tour and Wilson would earn his PGA Tour card later that year. Hidemichi Tanaka had done the same the previous year, after winning at Pearl.
Sakura Yokomine, 2004 JLPGA Rookie of the Year, played Pearl in 2005, at 19. She tied for 17th thanks to a 67, and went on to win twice in Japan that year. She is now the world's 14th-ranked female golfer.
Jesse Mueller won by eight shots last year. The 2008 Gateway Tour money leader captured the Hawai'i State Open by 10 shots in December. He opened this year by firing a pair of 62s at the first Gateway tournament to win by nine.