comscore Hawaii's pro, amateur qualifiers are eras apart

Hawaii’s pro, amateur qualifiers are eras apart

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Both started golfing at age 12. The ball they hit is round.

Beyond that Dave Eichelberger and David Saka, who earned Hawaii’s professional and amateur exemptions into this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii, make for an intriguing contrast.

Only Miller Barber, with 1,292 starts, has played more tour events (PGA, Champions and Nationwide) than Eichelberger, who moved here in 1998 and has twin daughters at Punahou.

Saka, who graduated from Moanalua last spring, has yet to hit a competitive shot at the University of Hawaii. But three weeks ago he shot a smooth 69 on an unusually difficult Waialae Country Club to win the amateur slot.

Before that day his greatest claim to golf fame was qualifying for a few USGA events and being low amateur at the 2009 Kona and Maui opens — and going to high school with Tadd Fujikawa.

Since 2005, Saka has been working six days a week with Kevin Ralbovsky, who will be his caddie this week. The 5-foot-4 130-pounder quit the game for eight months to try football. An injury brought him back, more devoted than before. He is the fastest player on the UH team and loves lifting, which helps him average 280 off the tee.

"David is an excellent ball striker, consistent, has a solid short game and can get real streaky with the putter," Ralbovsky says. "He is very unassuming and quite self-deprecating. … He always looks forward to a challenge and plays better under pressure, so it didn’t surprise me at all that he qualified."

Eichelberger was shocked when he got in, shooting his age to win the Aloha Section Stroke Play Championship. The last of his 10 tour wins came in 2002.

With time beginning to take a toll on his game, he has played just 17 senior events the past two years. Most of his competition now is against friends at Oahu and Waialae country clubs, with pressure in the form of playing to a plus-handicap.

He still remembers shooting 29 on the front nine of the second round of the Texas State Junior final 50 years ago to rally for the win.

It ultimately changed his life.

"I never thought about beating anybody the likes of them," Eichelberger recalled.

He kept beating people for the next 40-plus years, winning $7.5 million before settling into semi-retirement here. His last Sony appearance came at age 60, when he Monday qualified and got lost in 14-year-old Michelle Wie’s PGA Tour debut.

Eichelberger’s career has covered almost everything. Wie is the youngest to play in a tour event and Jerry Barber the oldest, at nearly 78. Sam Snead was the oldest to make a cut, at 67 years, 2 months and 21 days. Eichelberger will be 67 years, 4 months and 10 days old when he tees off Thursday.

"My goal is to try and drive it in the fairway," Eichelberger says. "If I drive it in the fairway I have a chance to shoot par or under. If I’m not driving it in the fairway you won’t be seeing me making any cuts.

"I don’t have the power to get out there far enough and blow a wedge out of 2-inch rough up onto the green. If I drive it in the rough I’ll be chomping it out with a 9-iron 50 yards short of the green. … My goal is to drive it in the fairway."

Saka is two years older than his former schoolmate was back in 2007, when Fujikawa earned this amateur exemption and became the youngest in 50 years — second-youngest ever — to make a PGA Tour cut.

Fujikawa took 20th and turned pro a few months later. Two years ago he had another top-35 Sony finish. Last year he won the eGolf Tour Championship.

Saka’s goals are low-key.

"I want to see up close and experience how professionals play," he says. "Enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and try not to hit any spectators. Not necessarily in that order."

He also would like to hit balls on the range next to "somebody like Dustin Johnson" and maybe go check out the 67-year-old on the practice putting green.

"Mr. Eichelberger played amazingly well, and the fact that he was able to shoot his age is just another testament to how great of a golfer he still is," Saka says. "I noticed that the younger guys cannot putt as well as the older guys.

"I just hope to be breaking 80 when I get to his age."


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