Islands still a sunny favorite even as pro golf visits dwindle
• Photo gallery: Sony Open - Pro-Junior Skills Challenge
By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer
PGA Tour player Parker McLachlin dreams of someday striding up the 18th hole fairway at Waialae Country Club, a winner in his hometown Sony Open in Hawai'i.
It is a vision he has nurtured since he was a 10-year-old Punahou School student, the dream having taken wide-eyed flight from having seen Kaua'i's David Ishii win the then-Hawaiian Open in 1990.
"I remember thinking, 'He's a guy from Hawai'i, that's so cool! If he can do it, maybe I can,' " McLachlin said.
The Sony Open tees off tomorrow, and McLachlin, who had a top-10 finish there two years ago and won at Reno in 2008, hopes Sony and other tournaments in Hawai'i stick around to inspire more of the state's youngsters.
"If we don't have these tournaments, it makes the dream (of pro golf) that much further away; less attainable for our junior golfers," McLachlin said.
Hawai'i, which hosted a smorgasbord of pro golf with eight events just two years ago, is down to five for 2010 and there are lingering questions over how long some of those may remain, though officials profess optimism.
The Sony is in the final year of its contract with the PGA, though in the absence of a formal announcement by the sponsor, commissioner Tim Finchem has said it will continue at least through 2011.
The SBS, which replaced the Mercedes at Kapalua this year, has a 10-year agreement with the PGA, though there is no guarantee it will remain here for the duration of the deal.
The Champions Tour for senior golfers has two events and the women's LPGA, which once had three tournaments here, has one.
How many of them might go the way of the PGA's Grand Slam of Golf, which left Kaua'i in 2006 after a 12-year stay, remains to be seen.
In that, it isn't just aspiring youngsters who suffer when events are lost to the state, so does the visibility of tourism, the state's dominant industry.
All four days of the Sony will be televised by the Golf Channel, with highlight clips being shown elsewhere as well.
Golf is important enough that the Hawai'i Tourism Authority funds it at $1.7 million annually, second only to the $4 million spent on the NFL's Pro Bowl, which is, at best, on a one-year sabbatical and may leave for good.
The Grand Slam was said to have been worth $2.4 million annually to Kaua'i, and officials quote a $35 million economic impact from the Sony.
FUTURE DEAL SOON
The HTA and PGA said they are currently in negotiations on a future deal that could be concluded as soon as the end of this month, though neither party would discuss the talks.
But people in tourism and the golf community say they are more optimistic about the prospects of retaining the high-visibility events than they were a year — or even six months — ago.
"I feel better than I did this time last year," said Mark Rolfing, a Maui resident and golf analyst for The Golf Channel and NBC. "I don't sense the (Kapalua event) is going anywhere, and Sony and the PGA, I think, have opened the door to a longer-term extension."
Said Michael Story, sports coordinator for the HTA, "I'd definitely say we're optimistic."
Rick George, PGA executive vice president and chief of operations, said: "I can't imagine that we will change, but you never know about the future. But we're pretty comfortable that we will start the year in Kapalua and come here."
Story said the HTA is talking with the LPGA about a future relationship. "The LPGA is definitely in our plans," he said.
A key feature of the past 11 years of the Sony and Kapalua events has been their positioning, leading off the PGA Tour season in January.
"We do like that and we think it makes sense for Hawai'i," George said. "Obviously, we haven't had weather like this elsewhere. When people are frozen in their homes (on the Mainland) they get to watch golf in beautiful Hawai'i, which, we think, is good for tourism."
PLAYERS LIKE ISLES
Many of the players endorse the trip to Hawai'i, too.
"I think Hawai'i is pretty much the ultimate paradise," said Matt Kuchar of Florida. "It is hard to find a place where you have kind of everything in one. I haven't been to a place that I enjoy as much as I enjoy Hawai'i."
Said Australia's Nathan Green: "I enjoy coming here for the first round of the year — it breaks up the trip to the U.S. It is a 10-hour flight here, a little time difference. It is a nice, easy way to start the year."
There has been talk of moving the start of the PGA Tour to a later date in an attempt to attract more golfers who want a longer break and to lessen the head-to-head competition with NFL football on TV. But George said: "I don't think a change (is coming) at this point. There are just so many weeks between this (Hawai'i swing) and the Tour Championship (in September) and we don't want to go too far into the NFL season.
"Really, there's not much wiggle room unless we lose some events, and we don't anticipate that happening."
Moanalua High graduate Tadd Fujikawa has more reasons than the $29,237 he won in 2009 to be grateful for the Sony, in particular, and pro events, in general, remaining here.
"I think it (PGA visibility) helped the world see who I was," he said. "I think it got me noticed. Without the Sony Open, I wouldn't be here (playing professionally) right now."