Finally, a Sony Open For the Grown-ups

January 21, 2008

TOO MANY teenagers at the mall." That's what I told my wife when she wanted me to run over to the Valley Heights Shopping Center for a Presidents' Day card. "They hang around outside Urban Outfitters," I said, "and make smart-ass remarks about my sandals and socks." ¬∂ So I wasn't exactly thrilled when I got assigned to cover last week's Sony Open in Honolulu—known to those of us of a certain age as the Kids "R" Us Klassic. But I wound up pleasantly surprised. For the first time since 2004, grown-ups were the story. The winner was K.J. Choi, age 37, and most of the guys chasing him on Sunday had 5 o'clock shadows and driver's licenses. ¬∂ No disrespect to Michelle Wie, who debuted here when she was 14, or Tadd Fujikawa, who finished 20th last year at age 16, but when a tournament is billed as the first full-field PGA Tour event of the year, you expect to see players whose résumés don't fit in a fortune cookie. Like Fred Funk. Ol' Fred is 51, but he made a little weekend move on his way to a 10th-place finish. Or Jerry Kelly. Ol' Jer, who was already halfway to grizzled when he won the Sony back in aught-two and is now a decrepit 41, shot a final-round 67 and finished third.

I particularly liked the example set by Tim Wilkinson, a Tour rookie from New Zealand. Wilkinson is only 29, but after shooting a tournament-best round of eight-under 62 last Saturday, he said, "I'll just read a book and go to bed." (Wilkinson struggled on Sunday and came in 25th, but I think I spotted him on Sunday night having the Early Bird Special at the Denny's on Kuhio Avenue.)

How'd they rein in the kids? Well, in Wie's case, they simply didn't invite her back. Wie was a sensation in 2004, when she got the first of four sponsor's exemptions; she missed the 36-hole cut by a stroke and tied the reigning British and U.S. Open champs in the process. But Wie's game has slipped since then—too much time at the mall?—and let's face it, the difference between 14 and 18 is the difference between Hannah Montana innocence and hip-hop-a-go-go depravity. Wie now lives in a freshman dorm at Stanford, and if that sounds innocent to you, ask my college roommate how he got the nickname Keg King.

Fujikawa, on the other hand, was invited back. That's because 1) at 5'1" and 130 pounds, he's still cute; 2) because last year he became the youngest player in a half-century to survive the cut at a Tour event; and 3) because he's a junior at Honolulu's Moanalua High, and the owners of the nearby Pearlridge Center hoped his classmates would spend the week at Waialae Country Club instead of hogging the food-court tables and blocking the doorway to the GNC store.

So Tadd—who turned pro last July so he could start earning money toward a mall of his own—made a bunch of us nervous by drawing the biggest weekday galleries. To escape the crowd I wandered off on Thursday afternoon and followed another Tour rookie, Tommy Gainey. Tommy is one of my favorite players because 1) he's over 30; 2) because he was the winner of Big Break IV; and 3) because he has an old-fashioned nickname, Two Gloves, that reminds me of old-timers like Red (the Galloping Ghost) Grange and Sal (the Barber) Maglie. Tommy only had five people following him late in his round, but some kid must have moved in his line at the 8th green, because Tommy three-putted from six feet. (Have you ever noticed how kids can't sit still? They're always pushing past me when I'm checking my receipt at the 10-items-or-less register.) Anyway, Tommy bounced back from a first-round 73 and shot a three-under-par 67 to make the cut.

Or did he? Under a new Tour policy that debuted in Honolulu (Backspin, page G11), when too many players make the cut on the number, they're given a check for their troubles, credited with an MDF (made cut, didn't finish) and FedEx Cup points, and sent home. That happened to 18 players at the Sony (including Gainey), all of whom finished in a tie for 70th, and some of them were vocal in their displeasure. John Daly said, "I don't think it's right that I work my tail off to make the cut but don't get to play on the weekend." (Had they weighed Daly, they would have found that he hadn't really worked his tail off.)

Fujikawa, I have to say, behaved much better than most kids his age. There was some gratuitous hand-slapping with his caddie when he hit a good shot, and he laughed a lot more than you'd expect from a golf pro. And after shooting 74--70 to miss the cut, he said, "I really enjoyed myself." Another local schoolboy, 17-year-old Alex Ching, also missed the cut at 144. He, too, displayed good manners.

But as I said, this was a week for grown-ups. Choi led wire-to-wire and closed with a 71 on a day when scores were high due to gusty winds. The only player to challenge him on Sunday was Rory Sabbatini, the popular pro from South Africa. Sabbatini took a run at Choi with a two-under 68, and when that wasn't enough—because Choi birdied the final hole to win by three—Rory put on a graciousness clinic.

"K.J.'s a phenomenal golfer and a great athlete," said Sabbatini. "Mentally, it's hard to faze him." The runner-up went on to say that Waialae was equally great ("one of the consummate classic golf courses"), as were his new Adams irons ("quite potentially the best irons I've ever hit") and driver ("phenomenal"), to say nothing of the island he was on the week before ("What better place to start off the year than Maui?"). Sabbatini, I told my wife on the phone, is the kind of upbeat, positive role model that these kid golfers need.

My wife said I should pick up a roll of paper towels on the way home.

Read Alan Shipnuck's Hot List at GOLF.com.

"I don't think it's right," said Daly, "that I work my tail off to make the cut BUT DON'T GET TO PLAY ON THE WEEKEND."

PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECKWEDGE WIZ Razor-sharp Choi, who missed only 18 greens, got up and down 15 times to lead the field in scrambling. PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECKSWEET SECOND Sabbatini put on a clinic in graciousness.

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)