When folks an ocean away think of Hawaii golf, chances are they first envision beautiful settings and balmy breezes. Then, if they have been following our golf world closely, they probably imagine Hawaii juniors kicking okole all over those beautiful settings and around the world.
When Kapalua’s Mark Rolfing got his hands on the Hyundai Tournament of Champions this year, with the 20-year-old Mark and Debi Rolfing Charitable Foundation taking over as host organization, one of his initial ideas was to bring in the kids. Next week, Hawaii’s heralded juniors — a group that now crowds college rosters and is identified with Michelle Wie and Tadd Fujikawa — will usher in the PGA Tour’s 2011 season at Kapalua Plantation.
Tournament week starts Sunday with Family Fun Day, a blur of activities, exhibitions, music and the inaugural Pro/Celebrity/Junior Shootout.
The pros will be Geoff Ogilvy, who has won the last two years at Kapalua, Steve Stricker, Rocco Mediate, Justin Rose and a tag team of Hawaii pros, Dean Wilson and Tadd Fujikawa. They will team with Cassy Isagawa — this year’s PGA Junior Champion — and Aaron Kunitomo (Maui), Kacie Komoto and Michael Fan (Oahu), Pono Tokioka and Kelli Oride (Kauai) and Ric Yamamoto and Ciera Min (Big Island) in a battle of the major islands.
Junior golf backers and a few celebrities, including The Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner and Dave Marr, will be in on the action. A bunch of other juniors will caddie, carry signs, rake bunkers and tend flagsticks.
"The kids will be involved in a very big way," said Hawaii State Golf Association President Mary Bea Porter-King, who created the event with Rolfing. "There will be a big group of people going down the fairway.
"Whatever it is and whoever plays it will be fun."
The rest of the week, through the following Sunday’s final round, will be full of events designed to involve anyone and everyone. It is all free, another one of Rolfing’s initiatives.
"The theme for the week is basically just come on out," the TV golf analyst said. "You don’t have to do anything. Just park the car and come in.
"I wanted to invite everybody out to see the big course, feel it and touch a couple players. It’s almost like introducing people to a whole new game."
He hopes to draw 2,000 Sunday, and set the tone for the new, all-inclusive TOC.
"I’m a junior golf guy," Rolfing said. "I think this event has lost energy over the last five years or so and one of the ways to immediately resurrect it is to get junior golf involved. If you get juniors involved that means parents are involved. It’s a very quick way of getting the community back in.
"The junior element adds energy, even with the players. If you want to push a button on most PGA players, junior golf is the quickest way."
That was confirmed Tuesday when Stricker, No. 7 in the World Golf Ranking, called Rolfing to say he was coming early. The weather was bad in Arizona and he needed to practice at Kapalua, which miraculously has seen no rain the last five days.
"Right in the middle of the conversation he said, ‘The best thing is now I can play in the junior thing Sunday. Can I still play?’ " Rolfing recalled. "That was really cool. Now I have to add a group."
Stricker and Wilson, along with Jerry Kelly, Fred Funk and Zach Johnson will be in the fifth annual King Auto Group Pro-Junior Skills Challenge the following Tuesday (Jan. 11) at Waialae Country Club. It leads into the Sony Open in Hawaii, the first full-field event of 2011.
Kelly and Isagawa, a Baldwin senior headed to Oregon on a golf scholarship, won it in 2008. Kelly won again this January with Justin Keiley, another Bear now playing for Brigham Young. In between, Kelly caddied for two-time state high school champion Kristina Merkle, now at Tulsa, when she played the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links near his home in Wisconsin.
Nearly every junior that has played at Waialae has earned a golf scholarship. This bunch at Kapalua will be no exception. They are among the best of what has become a gifted and celebrated group of Hawaii juniors.
"I travel a lot on the mainland," says Porter-King, a former LPGA player now working with the USGA. "The one big question I get, whether I’m with my USGA, PGA or LPGA friends, is what are you doing out there? They read about all the kids from Hawaii and how great they are doing."
The juniors’ challenge this year is to set the proper tone for Hyundai’s first year as title sponsor. Half the world’s top-40 golfers will follow them on the Plantation and Rolfing wants people inspired to watch.
"Mark wants to be inclusive and that’s part of our mission, too," Porter-King said. "Bringing people to Kapalua for free is showing he wants to be inclusive. This provides an opportunity to show golf is fun and something for everyone to try. If they have never watched or played it’s a great place to start. You can watch the world’s greatest players and it might spark some interest."
The way Wie, Fujikawa and those before them have sparked it here. Rolfing sensed what was happening, but wasn’t fully aware of the juniors’ impact until he put a video together for the HSJGA last year.
"I hadn’t paid that close attention, didn’t understand," he said. "For me it’s been a pretty quick metamorphosis from not knowing much about it all other than being a fan to now being on the board of the HSJGA."
» What: Season-opening PGA Tour event featuring 34 of the 2010 champions
» Where: The Kapalua Plantation Course (Par 36-37–73, 7,411 yards)
» When: Jan. 6 through Jan. 9, starting at 10 a.m. each day
» Pro-am: Monday at 9 a.m. and Wednesday at 7:30 a.m.
» Purse: $5.6 million ($1,120,000 first prize)
» Defending champion: Geoff Ogilvy (22-under 270)
» Admission: Free all week
» TV (tentative): The Golf Channel, 1 to 5:30 p.m. the first three days, 1 to 5 p.m. on the final day
» Fan zone: 8:30 a.m. from Monday through Jan. 8; 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 9
» Special events: Sunday–Family Fun Day starting at 11:30 a.m., with games, activities, exhibitions, trick-shot artist Dan Boever (1 p.m.), the Pro/Celebrity/Junior Shootout (2 p.m.) and a concert with Anuhea (3:30 p.m.). Wednesday–FedEx Cup Kick-Off starting at 2 p.m., including Keali’i Reichel and Jake Shimabukuro, Boever, Long Drive Contest, Pro/Celebrity Charity Challenge and Golf Channel live broadcast. Jan. 6, through Jan. 9–5 p.m. concerts with Gail Swanson (Thursday), Jimmy Mac & the Kool Kats (Friday), AnDen (Saturday) and George Kahumoku Jr. (Sunday).