Tadd Different

When 16-year-old Tadd Fujikawa announced that he was turning pro, he was lumped together with another Hawaiian prodigy--even though they are polar opposites
December 10, 2007

The other day TaddFujikawa and his father, Derrick, went fishing in the beautiful waters off SandIsland in Honolulu, where Derrick has been a regular since he was a boy fishingwith his dad. The outing had to be crammed into the narrow window betweenTadd's morning at Moanalua High and his afternoon as a pro golfer, chock-fullas it was of media interviews, business meetings and a long practice session atHonolulu Country Club under the watchful gaze of his mother, Lori. As Derrickpiloted the 19-foot skiff through some choppy water, both Fujikawas went togreat lengths to explain why no fish would be caught: The tide was too high,fish don't bite in the afternoon, etc. According to Derrick, there was only oneglimmer: "Taddy boy is the luckiest guy in the world, so you neverknow." ¶ Tadd, 16, has been so consumed by golf since he turned pro thissummer that he and his father hadn't been fishing together in a while. As Taddloosened up with a few idle casts, Derrick was unimpressed with his son'sdeteriorated form. "You throw like a girl, bruddah." ¶ One so-so castwas followed by one word of commentary: "Shank." ¶ Tadd simply rolledhis eyes. "He's always like this, unfortunately," he said. ¶ Derrickand Tadd's conversation was a mishmash of English, Japanese and Hawaiian, areflection of the family's polyglot roots. Derrick finally stopped the boat inhis secret spot, above a cave in the reef, where he claimed the fish like toloiter. Tadd unfurled a majestic cast, and no sooner had the lure hit the waterthan his rod began twitching violently. Moments later he had reeled in athree-pound papio, its body a striking, translucent blue.

Derrick seemedmore excited about having his prediction confirmed than the fish itself: "Itold you, he's the luckiest guy in the world!"

Tadd lazily madeanother half-dozen casts. When a papio grows up--say, above 10 pounds--thelocals call it a ulua. It has razor-sharp rails on its fins, which it uses tostun its prey. Off in the distance the water exploded around Tadd's lure. Aulua had tried to smack it with its fin before biting down on the hook.

"Big one!"Derrick yelled.

Tadd, his rod bentnearly in half, sweat already beginning to pour off his forehead, stillmanaged some perfect teenaged snarkiness: "Hello, I know that. I'm the oneholding the rod!"

Tadd won his firstjunior judo national championship at age eight. He has the balance and grace ofa ballet dancer, combined with the powerful lower body of a fullback. He dancedaround the boat, fighting the fish and fending off the excited commentary ofhis dad. After a heroic battle that lasted at least 10 minutes, he reeledin a 17-pound ulua that was so big it wouldn't fit in the ice chest. Derricktook a knife and hacked the ulua's gills so it would bleed out, ensuring thatthe next day's homemade sashimi would have white meat, not pink. Tadd didn'thide his disgust: "Ewww, that's gross."

Later Derrick andTadd waded into waist-deep water to hunt octopuses with spears, poking into theholes where the mysterious creatures like to hide. They were having a ball, butwith a sigh Derrick cut short the trip. "We have to get to the course orMoms is going to be pissed."

"Practicealways comes first," said Tadd, who in his short professional career hasalready discovered that in golf it is not quite so easy to land the bigone.

In July, whenFujikawa turned pro, the move occasioned plenty of head-scratching, and someundisguised scorn. The day Tadd made his announcement, John Francis, whose sonPhillip is a top amateur now enrolled at UCLA, told SI, "I would personallybe embarrassed for my son to do that."

Because Fujikawais a teenager from Hawaii it is irresistible to draw comparisons with MichelleWie, who has become a $10 million-a-year cautionary tale. Like Wie,Fujikawa burst onto the scene at the Sony Open in Hawaii. In his case it waslast January, when he became the youngest player in a half century to make thecut at a PGA Tour event. It wasn't only the achievement that resonated but alsoFujikawa's panache. On his 36th hole he made a spectacular eagle, chasing theball into the hole with a roundhouse fist-pump that was pure exuberance. Thenext day he shot a 66 to surge into a tie for eighth, and Hawaii fairly shook.Fujikawa ran out of magic on Sunday, shooting 72, but still finished a verycreditable 20th. (He would have collected $54,228.57 had he not been anamateur.) What made Fujikawa impossible not to root for was the figure he cuton the course: Born more than three months premature and weighing less than twopounds, he has topped out at 5' 1" and 135.

As diminutive asFujikawa is, it would be a mistake to underestimate his fighting spirit."In judo he was like a wild animal," says Derrick, an instructor at theSalt Lake Judo Club, which has been run for decades by his father, Danny."All the kids were a head taller, but they would cry when they had to facehim because they were so scared." A month after the Sony, Fujikawa he wonthe Pearl Open, a pro tournament in Hawaii that attracts regulars from theJapanese tour. Fujikawa iced the tournament with approach shots to two feet orless on two of the final three holes.

His successagainst the pros convinced Fujikawa that he had outgrown amateur golf, but hisparents were tortured about letting him play for pay and spent months trying totalk him out of it. Tadd ultimately wore them down. In many quarters Wie'scareer has come to be viewed as little more than a cynical cash grab, andFujikawa's decision to go pro was inevitably seen in the same light. "Thecomparisons are unfair because we're different people and our situations arevery different," Tadd says.

Wie is thedaughter of a university professor and attended the Punahou School, a bastionof the Hawaiian elite. Fujikawa was offered a scholarship there but insteadchose Moanalua, a large public high school that, according to a news clippingin the school's front office, draws from a district with a median annual incomeof $38,427, below the state average. Explaining his decision, Tadd says, "Ifeel more comfortable there. It's more my kind of place."

Derrick is aself-employed contractor specializing in plumbing and air conditioning,and the work comes and goes. (His gig as a judo instructor is unpaid.) Loriworks part time doing paperwork for an auto body shop, but spends most ofher time attending to her son's hectic schedule. Her duties include acting aschauffeur because Tadd has been too busy to get his driver's license, or so heclaims.

The Fujikawas'humble material circumstances played a big part in Tadd's decision to turn pro.When he was an amateur, the outside assistance he (or the family) could receiveto defray travel expenses to the mainland was limited. In recent monthsFujikawa has teed it up at the Omega Masters in Switzerland and the Casio Openin Japan, with the tournaments supplying airfare and other travel expenses forTadd and Lori.

In all, Fujikawahas played eight tournaments as a pro, including three on the PGA Tour (whereany kind of travel stipend is forbidden). His career earnings so far are $0, ashe has yet to make a cut. The family is getting by with help from Tadd'sgrandparents and something called the Tadd Fujikawa Dream Fund, which wasstarted by a group of magnanimous Hawaiians and has grown to about $10,000."It's been hard to make ends meet," Lori says, "but we're used tohaving to sacrifice."

It was by designthat Tadd did not sign any endorsement deals in the first four months afterturning pro. In formulating a marketing strategy, those around Fujikawa lookedat Wie's career blueprint and basically did the opposite. Says Tadd's attorney,Kevin Bell, "There was certainly plenty of interest, but we didn't wantTadd to be burdened by extra demands on his time or feel like he had thepressure of having to justify corporate contracts. The idea was to give himtime to settle in."

To no one'ssurprise, Fujikawa has received a sponsor's exemption to play in next month'sSony Open, where he will be the center of attention, not to mention thetournament's ad campaigns. (He'll turn 17 on Jan. 8, two days before thetournament begins.) To cash in on all that publicity, Bell has been ramping updiscussions with potential sponsors, which is how Fujikawa recently foundhimself in a sterile conference room atop a Honolulu high-rise. Eight otherpeople crowded the table, including Bell, representatives of a marketing firmthat he has retained and executives from go! Airlines, which services theHawaiian Islands and the West Coast. After the lengthy ritual exchange ofbusiness cards the air crackled with business jargon such as corporatealliances, cross-platform branding and activation initiatives. Tadd satimpassively at the head of the table, swallowed up by a large black leatherchair. During the 45-minute meeting he asked no questions and was content tolet the grown-ups do all the talking. Afterward he was asked if the experiencewas interesting or torturous. "A little of both," he said.

Bell is waiting ona final proposal from go! and its parent company, Mesa Airlines, but isconfident a deal will get done. Also being finalized are endorsement pacts withAloha Petroleum, a watch company and what Bell says is a major foodmanufacturer. These contracts will give Fujikawa and his family some financialrelief, but none of the deals will be blockbusters, and Tadd still has notsigned with an equipment manufacturer. Bell is too polite to say it, but it'sclear that Wie has become so radioactive that the fallout is being felt by thenext teen phenom to come along.

While the businessaspects continue to get worked out, Fujikawa is focused primarily on improvinghis game, the foundation of which is a natural swing. He is blessed withathletic genes, and in fact is the only one in the family without a black belt.Ball striking is Fujikawa's strength, perhaps a surprise for someone who is sosmall. "Tadd's height would be an issue if he were a short hitter, but he'snot," says Todd Anderson, Fujikawa's swing coach since July. "Hegenerates plenty of speed, and he compresses the ball nicely. I actually thinkhis height can be an advantage, because he has fewer angles and moving parts toworry about, and it definitely helps him when it's windy."

PGA Tourjourneyman Michael Boyd was paired with Fujikawa at this summer's Reno-TahoeOpen and says, "I don't think length is going to be a determining factorfor him. He hit it as far as I did, and I think I'm plenty long enough to playout here."

During his recentcameos in the big leagues, Fujikawa has struggled with the pace and severity ofthe greens, which have also exposed holes in his wedge play. Honolulu CountryClub has graciously granted him access to its facilities, but the club doesn'texactly replicate Tour conditions: At the range Fujikawa hits restricted-flightballs off artificial-turf mats, and the practice green is flat, slow andgrainy. "Yes, it is a big adjustment every time I go to a tournament,"he says, "and I will admit that it has been a little frustrating tostruggle like I have. But I'm learning so much every time I play, and that'sthe important thing."

With the help ofeveryone around him, Fujikawa has remained focused on the big picture. He talksabout a five-year plan to make it to the Tour, which is not an unreasonabletimeline. Sean O'Hair and Kevin Na both turned pro before they graduated fromhigh school. Now in their early 20s, they have become successful pros.

PGA Tour bylawsprevent anyone under 18 from holding a Tour card, so in the coming yearFujikawa will cobble together a schedule that will likely feature detours inEurope, Asia and on the Nationwide tour while he continues to be a high schoolstudent. This semester he is on campus every morning for four classes: English,Japanese, marine science and piano. A special dispensation from the schoolallows him to take history and math as correspondence courses. "My wholelife is school, golf and sleep," Tadd says. "Oh, and eating,too."

There is asweetness and an innocence about Tadd that comes out in many ways, particularlyin how he dotes on his elders, especially his grandmother Ellen Higuchi, withwhom Tadd and his parents live. Ellen was 11 on the day Pearl Harbor wasattacked, and she lost the lower half of her right arm when antiaircraftartillery tore through her home. (Her older brother was killed byshrapnel.)

A direct link toPearl Harbor is only one indication of how deep Fujikawa's roots are in thecommunity. It surely says something that months ago he received his sponsor'sexemption to the Sony Open, while Wie still has not been invited even thoughshe has a lucrative endorsement deal with the title sponsor. "Thedifference between Tadd and Michelle is that people here actually likehim," says one Sony executive, who requested anonymity. "They want himto succeed because he's one of us."

A recent meal at alocals' restaurant ended with the owner picking up the check, telling Tadd itwas because he has "the Aloha spirit." He'll need that kind of goodvibe at the Sony, during what is sure to be a pressure-packed week for ateenager still finding his way as a pro. Then again, Fujikawa has such anendless supply of youthful exuberance that it's hard to imagine him not havinga great time, regardless of his scores. When he looks ahead to the Sony, he ismost excited not about all the autographs he will sign or the TV interviews ora chance to get his hands on a chunk of the $5 million purse. What he isreally fantasizing about is what awaits at the driving range. Says Tadd,"When I hit balls now, some are yellow, some are blue, some have stripes,some don't. You go to the range at a Tour event, and the balls are beautiful.They have bag after bag of every brand, and they are all perfectly white. Oh,my gawd! It's like you've died and gone to heaven!"

Once again, he'llfeel like the luckiest guy in the world.


Read Alan Shipnuck's Hot List at GOLF.com

When Tadd turned pro, John Francis, whose son is a topamateur, said, "I would personally BE EMBARRASSED for my son to dothat."

Tadd's career earnings so far are $0. Says Lori,"It's been hard to make ends meet, BUT WE'RE USED TO HAVING TOSACRIFICE."

"Tadd's height would be an issue if he were a shorthitter, but he's not," says Anderson. "HE GENERATES PLENTY OFSPEED."

PHOTOPhotographs by Todd Bigelow/AuroraHIGH HOPES

There are endorsement deals on the horizon for Tadd, but they're for smallchange when compared with Wie's.
PHOTOJAE C. HONG/AP TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Todd Bigelow/AuroraMATS ONLY At Honolulu Country Club, Tadd can't replicate Tour conditions, but that throws neither him nor mom Lori, who is a black belt in aikido. TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Todd Bigelow/AuroraMAJOR CHORDS Born three months premature, Tadd can relate to a preemie at Kapiolani Medical Center. Earlier (right) he tickled the ivories at Moanalua. PHOTOPhotographs by Todd Bigelow/AuroraLOCAL KNOWLEDGE Many Hawaiians feel that Tadd (looking to spear an octopus) possesses the Aloha spirit.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)