Kua perched atop Hawaii scoreboard Johnson shares first-round lead
• Photo gallery: Sony Open Round 1
BY BILL KWON
Special to the Advertiser
Guess who shot the best of the six local golfers in the first round of the Sony Open in Hawai'i, the PGA Tour's first full-field event of the year?
Tadd Fujikawa? Strike one.
Parker McLachlin? Strike two.
Dean Wilson? Strike three, you're out.
It was TJ Kua, all 120 pounds of him, and a sophomore on the University of Hawai'i golf team.
Kua birdied the par-5 18th hole in near darkness for a 1-under-par 69 that put him in the same heady company as Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, and two shots up on Wilson and former UH-Hilo golfer Nick Mason. McLachlin and Fujikawa both shot 2-over 72, while Aloha Section Player of the Year Kevin Hayashi came in at 74.
"He made us proud," said UH golf coach Ron Miyashiro, who was in a gallery of friends and family following Kua, the only amateur in the field. "The last birdie will give him confidence for tomorrow."
For Kua, just playing in his first PGA Tour event was exciting enough. The thought of making the cut is really something else, according to the nephew of 1990 United Air Lines Hawaiian Open winner David Ishii.
Kua, who received a sponsor's amateur exemption, admitted he was nervous all day, especially when introduced at the first tee. "When they announced my name, I was like, 'wow,' " he said. "(But) where else would I rather be?"
Told it was Kua's first PGA event, playing partner Martin Flores, who was playing in only his second, could only shake his head and say, "It sure didn't look like it. He played well today. It was a joy to watch him."
Making a bomb (a 24-foot birdie putt) on the fourth hole kind of settled his nerves, especially after bogeying the hole before, according to Kua, who had five birdies and four bogeys in what he called a "roller-coaster day." But he told his caddie, Travis Toyama, "I love roller coasters. I hit the ball everywhere and I didn't putt too well. But I put it all together at the end."
Two of Kua's birdies came at 16 and 18, enabling him to post a red number, which could be significant. The top 70 and ties will play the weekend and right now 1-over-par makes it.
Kua was kind of surprised his 69 was the best score among the local players. "It's nice to know," he said. "Hope I can carry it over for tomorrow."
Mason birdied three of his last five holes to pull off a remarkable comeback after double-bogeying the two par-3s on the front nine.
"It was a good feeling to get back after the two very bad holes on the front nine. My caddie (and former UH-Hilo teammate) Kellen Anderson kept me in it," said Mason, whose parents caught the first flight out of Atlanta when they learned he qualified for his first PGA event on Monday.
"I got on the fairway on the back nine and (had) eight chances for birdie," Mason said. "If I can do that again tomorrow, keep the ball in the fairway, I have a good chance to shoot under par."
McLachlin also birdied 18, which was badly needed, he said. "I felt like I was leaking a little bit of oil coming in. I played a nice solid front nine and still drove the ball pretty nicely on the back nine," McLachlin said.
But the swirling winds that whipped around Waialae made distance control with his iron shots difficult. "You couldn't pin-point which way it was blowing," McLachlin said. "It was a tough day out there. But I'm happy at 2 over at this point because I feel good where my game is at."
McLachlin birdied both of the par-5s, which he said is key this week. "You've got to take advantage of the two par-5s," he said. "There are no other gimmes out here."
Tell that to Wilson, who was disappointed about missing 8- and 6-foot birdie putts at 18 and 9 (both par-5s), respectively, after starting on the back nine.
"I'm disappointed I didn't birdie the last hole," Wilson said. "Just wished I could get a couple more putts to drop and make my life and my tournament easier."