POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 14, 2011
It took an act of God and plenty of persistence, but John Ellis finally snagged the Hawaii Pearl Open title yesterday.
Ellis, a 31-year-old golf pro from San Jose, Calif., won by two shots over defending champion Akinori Tani and Nick Mason — the Leilehua and University of Hawaii-Hilo graduate who Tani overtook last year. It was Ellis' first win at Pearl Country Club, and his fourth top-six finish in as many tries.
"Every year, at one point, I've had the lead and managed to mess it up or get beat," said Ellis, whose ties to Hawaii include carrying a Roy's restaurant golf bag. "I was on my way to do both of those things today and so obviously this is great. It's hard to beat three people let alone 180. It's very gratifying."
His breakthrough came in the year of weird weather. Last month rain delayed the first round of the Sony Open in Hawaii a day. Friday, Pearl's opening round was suspended twice then canceled when a deluge put the course under water with only a third of the field finished (about 30 never started).
Those hit hardest were locals Samuel Cyr, who shot 68 Friday but could manage just 76 Saturday and made the modified cut on the number, and Mason, who had his 66 erased. The first person to congratulate Ellis when he walked to the scoring tent was Mason.
"I feel bad for some of the guys that played well that day," said Ellis, who shot 70 Friday. "It's hard for me to put a spin on it. Obviously I benefited from it.
"You can't control the weather. They made their decision and stuck by it."
Ellis, who won three tournaments and the Order of Merit on the Canadian Tour in 2008, took control by firing 64 Saturday. He birdied the first two holes yesterday to push his lead to five.
Then the painfully slow pace of play hit and two bogeys — his first of the tournament — followed. Ellis rebounded with birdie on the next hole, but three-putted No. 8 and missed the green at No. 9 for another bogey to fall to 7 under.
About that time Tomokatsu Usuki was finishing up a 6-under-par 66 in his Pearl debut to pull into a tie for second at 5 under. Usuki, a seventh-year Japan pro, twice put together four straight birdies to shoot the day's low score and one of just seven sub-70 rounds in an opposite breeze that gave the Open a weather trifecta: rain Friday, tradewinds Saturday, Kona wind yesterday.
Meanwhile, in the two groups ahead of Ellis, Mason and Tani were making their moves. Mason birdied the 11th hole to get to 6 under and Tani birdied the 10th and 11th to match him. They trailed Ellis by just one.
They would manage only pars the rest of the way. Mason one-putted Nos. 15 and 16 for that, and Tani three-putted the par-5 17th — his fourth three-putt of the day. A year ago his eagle at 17 was the margin of victory.
Ellis knew his lead was evaporating, but the bogeys before the turn and a word from his caddie slapped some sense into him. He was 1 over and still ahead, his caddie said. Would he have believed that when the day started?
Ellis began to hit each shot pure and launch every drive down the middle. He later admitted to just one bad swing the entire back nine. He birdied the 12th from 8 feet and never had anything longer than a tap-in for par the rest of the way to finish at 72 and 8-under 136.
The two-shot victory and a first-place prize made up of $12,000 and two roundtrip tickets to Japan was something Ellis wondered if he would ever get after four years of coming painfully close.
The feeling he had at the end was much like that magical year in Canada, when he won three events almost in succession. He hadn't won since and keeps getting stuck in the second stage of the PGA Tour Q-School. Maybe this win will be the one that gets him over that next hurdle, Ellis said in several ways yesterday.
"What this does," he said, "is it just breeds confidence. There is no substitute for confidence. You can practice all day, but if you don't hit the shots when it matters practice is a non-factor."
Matt Ma earned low amateur honors to give the University of Oregon a Pearl sweep; Ellis was the Ducks' senior captain when Ma moved to Eugene. Ma shot 71--141 to share seventh with four others, including Turtle Bay's Tony Finau (74) and two-time Pearl champion Kiyoshi Murota (72).
Ma, 27, grew up playing Pearl because he lived nearby. His parents never allowed him to take off from school to play the Open when he was younger. In the three years since he returned from college he couldn't get time off work to play. He quit his job Thursday and will begin at Maruman this week, hopefully getting to play more golf as he sells its club and apparel lines.
» After the four players who did not finish Saturday were done yesterday morning, the cut came at 76, with 104 players teeing off for the final round. PGA Tour player Parker McLachlin, state high school champion Rudy Cabalar, Hawaii Golf Hall of Famer Brandan Kop and Ayaka Kaneko were among those at 77. Kaneko's score was the best of the seven women that played.
» A check for $4,240 was given to the Oahu Junior Golf Association from the proceeds of Thursday's Pro-Am. The money will help fund the OJGA's Pearl Junior Open, which will include players from Japan this year.