Isle players eager to kick-start year, careers
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
As the Sony Open in Hawai'i prepares to tee off for the 12th year at Waialae Country Club tomorrow, there are five compelling local stories waiting anxiously in the wings.
None has anything to do with Michelle Wie.
Tadd Fujikawa, who has created a frenzy two of the past three years at Sony, has been waiting for this moment for a year.
"Ever since Sunday at Sony last year," said Fujikawa, who turned 19 Jan. 8. "I couldn't wait until this week."
Parker McLachlin and Dean Wilson — Hawai'i's two tour players — along with Hilo's Kevin Hayashi and Kaua'i amateur TJ Kua have waited just as long if not longer.
This will be McLachlin's fifth Sony and he has made the cut every other opportunity, including a 10th in 2008, when he also got his first tour win. It's his turn, and he needs the boost after falling to 176th on the money list last year while working on a radical swing change.
Wilson also needs a hometown jump-start, after failing to keep his card in his fifth year on tour. He has missed the cut at Waialae the past four years. Hayashi, who claimed the Aloha Section PGA's slot again, is attempting to make his first cut.
Then there's Kua, a University of Hawai'i junior and the reigning Manoa Cup champ, who has even less pressure on him than the 47-year-old Hayashi.
Kua's uncle, Hawai'i Golf Hall of Famer David Ishii, won at Waialae in 1990 when this was still called the Hawaiian Open. Ishii is telling his nephew only to soak up and enjoy the whole experience.
"He's an amateur, there's no pressure on him," said Ishii. "Even if he does well, he can't win anything. It's all a learning experience. If he's going to continue, he's got to get a taste of what it will be like, he's got to play with the guys he will be playing with if he tries to get out on tour.
"He's got to match up to guys too. TJ's only like 120 pounds. If he's going to play with those boys they're not small kids. He's got to get some size and stamina."
Nothing in local golf is better than playing Sony, aside from playing Sony well. It is a rare challenge, fraught with physical and emotional barriers only a few have mastered.
Fujikawa, with Top-35 finishes two of the past three years, and Wie, who came within a shot of making the cut at age 14, have found a way to thrive under the suffocating microscope at a tender age. Ishii, a shy 14-time winner in Japan, says it is a skill that cannot be taught.
Fujikawa's rise has been fascinating. The 5-foot-2 Moanalua High graduate shocked the golf world in 2007 when he became the youngest in 50 years to make a tour cut and ultimately tied for 20th at Waialae — seven months after becoming the youngest to play in the U.S. Open.
He turned pro six months later and has won some $120,000 since. A quarter of it came last year at Waialae when a third-round 62 — with three lipouts — put him in the lead for 2› hours.
"That memory is kinda like a blur," Fujikawa said of the 62 that inspired a mob on the back nine. "I told myself to go in and have fun, enjoy myself out there. I did pretty well. I kind of got into a mode of hit it and go find it and hit it again. It so happened I hit a bunch of good shots, made a few birdies. I added it up and it was 62. I hope I get more rounds like that."
The other plan for 2010 — unless a win, Top 10 or another Sony shocker kicks off something better — is to grind it out in as many tournaments as he can play on sponsor exemptions and mini-tours, specifically the eGolf tour on the East Coast.
Fujikawa has nine months to become the youngest ever to win on tour, but his greatest challenge now might just be to tee it up.
"I want to go out play as much as I can," Fujikawa said. "When you're playing tournaments and playing well you can get on a roll and keep trying to improve. When you play one and get a month break, it kills your momentum. That part is really hard and no one understands it until you go through it. If I can play on a week-to-week basis and experience what that's like it will really help me in the long run."
Wilson, who just turned 40, also needs a high finish to enhance his opportunities. He finished 152nd on the money list last year, which could get him 15 starts. That's half what he usually plays.
"Dean is the kind of guy who, if he gets hot, he stays hot for awhile," McLachlin said. "He's a good enough player to be able to keep his card or win in those 15 events."
McLachlin also struggled last year, which wasn't a huge surprise. The night he won the Legends Reno-Tahoe Open in 2008, the Punahou graduate took a long look at his swing and did not like what he saw.
"I was ecstatic about winning, but at the same time I knew that was not how I wanted my swing to hold up under pressure with the lead on Sunday," McLachlin recalled. "Part of me was searching for more."
He sought out a coach who would give him a massive makeover and found Sean Foley, who also worked with Stephen Ames, Sean O'Hair and Hunter Mahan.
Foley changed McLachlin's grip and posture, upper- and lower-body movement, moved his arms and reworked his impact and release. He explained each change in detail, based on physics and biomechanics, as he undid 20-plus years of motor patterns to get the Punahou grad to hit the sweet spot more consistently.
McLachlin admits he would not have done it without the benefit of his two-year exemption for winning at Reno. He was prepared to swallow his pride last season as he went through the "thousands and thousands" of repetitions to make the new swing his own.
"It was embarrassing at times and not a lot of fun," he said. "To change your swing you can't just sit on the range at home and take a whole year off and come back. You've got to be playing in tournaments and trying out your new swing under pressure. That's what I did last year.
"The tough part about it is your scores are printed in papers and everybody sees the results from the outside, but it's tough to be able to figure out what's actually happening, how the evolution is progressing. I knew I was going to be in for a struggle, but I don't think I realized how much."
McLachlin made just 10 cuts, including five of his last eight, and $175,000. But by the end, he felt the new swing was finally his.
"My analogy is I was starting to feel I'm not going to the golf course renting a swing every day," he said. "I'm going to the golf course owning my swing, That feels really good."
His goals this year are to match his four Top-10 finishes, earn his way into the majors at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, and get back to Kapalua's SBS Championship with another victory.
Nothing would be sweeter for any of these five golfers than to win this week. The hardest part might be not to try too hard.
"At some point hopefully I'll figure it out," McLachlin said. "The more you go out and enjoy the week and enjoy playing in front of friends and family and local fans, that's what it's all about. You really can't put too much pressure on yourself. I'm already trying 100 percent. To try an extra 20 percent only adds tension."
A year ago, Parker McLachlin was guarding President-elect Barack Obama on the basketball court during a pickup game at Punahou, where Parker's dad, Chris, coached Obama. This year, the two 'Buffanblu graduates missed each other on visits. "I'm waiting for our next encounter on the golf course," McLachlin said. "It was on his turf last time. Next time it's going to be on my turf."