Make room for Lehman Priceless exposure for Fujikawa
• Photo gallery: Sony Open in Hawaii Official Pro-Am
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
Tom Lehman has seen pretty much everything in 30 years as a golf pro. Nothing is quite like Hawai'i.
Lehman will make his 20th start at Waialae Country Club today when the Sony Open in Hawai'i tees off. Tendinitis forced him to miss it last year, for the first time in a decade.
"I missed being here," Lehman said. "It seemed like the year didn't start right."
He vividly recalls his first Hawaiian Open, as a PGA Tour rookie in 1983.
"I had no money to speak of," Lehman said. "I was staying in Waikīkī. There were four of us crammed into one room. I thought staying at the Kahala Hotel they've changed the name of that place a few times was way out of reach. Only the stars got to stay here."
Lehman missed the cut here three straight years, while guys like Mark O'Meara, Jack Renner and Isao Aoki were winning. He didn't make a lot of other cuts either and played all over the world in the late 1980s.
He returned to the U.S. and was Nationwide Player of the Year in 1991. The next year he was back at Waialae, gaining the first of seven top-10 finishes.
He ended up 24th on the PGA money list and pretty much stayed in the top 25 for the next decade. Lehman was Player of the Year in 1996, when he was No. 1 in money and captured the British Open and PGA Grand Slam on Kaua'i.
Two years earlier, he had reached for the stars and made a reservation at what is now called Kahala Hotel & Resort. He's been back pretty much every year since.
"It's always been a great trip for the family to take together," Lehman said. "I love the Islands. The weather is great. The people are very friendly. It's a really good golf tournament. For me, it's become a tradition. This is my 20th year and it's the 46th year at Waialae. The tradition the tournament has means a lot to me. For all those reasons, this is a really great week."
The tour has played at Waialae since 1965. Only Augusta National (1934), Colonial Country Club (1946) and Bermuda Dunes (1960) have longer histories.
Lehman's history here outdates his kids, who range from 6 to 19. They have been coming to Hawai'i "since before they were born." They watched their dad come in second to John Morse in 1995 and Brad Faxon in 2001. Lehman has never won at Waialae, but has tamed the tradewinds to collect more than $1 million.
"You always like courses where you play well," said Lehman, whose 19th and last runner-up finish was to Castle graduate Dean Wilson at the 2006 International. "If I didn't, it would change the whole week. It's partly because of the wind that I have played well. Over the years the wind has been my friend. The wind is the challenge of this golf course."
Lehman turned 50 last year and won his first start on the Champions Tour, falling in love with every element of the senior circuit. His schedule this year will be on both tours, starting with Sony this week and on the Big Island next week.
"When Bernhard Langer and I won the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, I remember having a 4-foot putt on the second playoff hole to win," Lehman blogged. "All I could think about standing over that 4-footer was if I make this putt, I get to go to the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualālai, and if I miss it, my wife is going to kill me."
Lehman is still standing, in one of his favorite places on the planet, anticipating a year unlike any other, especially when he recalls being "crammed" into that Waikīkī hotel room almost 30 years ago.
"I'll pick and choose the tournaments I like best this year," he said. "All I know is, I'll play a lot of golf."
And watch a lot. It was Lehman who spied Michelle Wie on the Waialae driving range as a 13-year-old. He gave her the "Big Wiesy" nickname because of her long, languid, shockingly strong swing in the body of someone not so different from his oldest daughter.
Lehman admits Wie's swing has "changed a little," but is still stunned by her power and makes no judgment on the renovation. "Anybody can make a judgment," he said, "but the only person that swing matters to is Michelle."
He does have an opinion on the Punahou graduate's wild road to her first professional victory.
"It was good to see her finally win," Lehman said. "She had to kind of earn it. She's never stayed at a level long enough to dominate. She always played way ahead of her age. When she should have been playing juniors, she was playing big amateur events. When she should have been playing big-time amateur events she was playing men's events. She never stayed somewhere where she could dominate. I think it actually hurt her. Seeing her win and catching up to her ability I expect her to have a great year."
Lehman is playing on a one-time exemption in 2010, for being among the top 50 in career earnings, at 21st. Jesper Parnevik (46th) and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin (48th) are also playing on that exemption.
Blake Adams, Troy Merritt, Brian Stuard and Jerod Turner are making their first PGA Tour starts today. A dozen more players, including 21-year-old Rickie Fowler, are making their first starts as tour members.
Eight of the last 11 Sony champions played the previous week at Kapalua, which might make Rory Sabbatini a favorite. He shot 63 Sunday at Kapalua to come up a shot short of Geoff Ogilvy at the SBS Championship. Sabbatini has two runner-up finishes at Waialae Country Club in the last four years.