After 32 years, the Hawaii Pearl Open still gets golfers coming and going. Many are on their way up, to bigger challenges, or maybe the mainland or high school. Some are on their way back, to where their game once was, or homes in Japan, Korea and Canada, or the PGA Tour.
Pearl Country Club has become one of golf’s most diverse meeting places every February. Half the players, including 67 pros, are from Japan. The others are from all over the map.
Tomorrow, 12-year-old Kevin Kyosuke Hara, a Kaimuki Middle School seventh-grader who qualified Tuesday, will tee off. So will 55-year-old Kiyoshi Murota and 51-year-old Hideki Kase, who have 10 Japan tour wins between them, and $17 million in earnings.
Murota, who had two Top-20 finishes on the Japan tour last year, won here twice in his 40s. He beat Hawaii’s Greg Meyer in a 1997 playoff or Meyer, recently inducted into the Hawaii Golf Hall of Fame, would have five Pearl Open championships — one less than David Ishii.
Meyer, Ishii and Parker McLachlin will play again this year, McLachlin for the first time since 2005. The Punahou graduate won the PGA Tour’s Reno-Tahoe Open in 2008, but is fighting to get his card back. The fight starts in Aiea tomorrow and McLachlin is not alone.
HAWAII PEARL OPEN
» When: From 7 a.m. tomorrow and Saturday and from 8 a.m. Sunday
» Where: Pearl Country Club (Par 36-36–72, 6,800 yards)
» Purse: $81,160 ($12,000 to winner)
» Defending champion: Akinori Tani (12-under-par 204)
» Admission: Free
» Pro-Am: Today at noon
» Sunday: Demo Day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m, with representatives from Callaway, Cleveland, Nike, TaylorMade, Titleist and Yonex
Leilehua and University of Hawaii-Hilo graduate Nick Mason was also among the several thousand who failed to navigate PGA Tour Q-School last fall, missing the final stage by two shots. A year ago he held the lead going into the next-to-last hole at Pearl, only to be overtaken by Akinori Tani’s eagle.
Mason now lives on the mainland for its competitive and geographic advantages. He is back this week, drawn by the "worldwide field" and an atmosphere he can’t find anywhere else.
"A lot of people don’t understand how many good players are here, from the mainland, Japan and Hawaii," he says. "Guys like John Ellis and Jesse Mueller are one or two shots from the PGA Tour. The golf course is awesome, one of my favorites, but the field is the best thing about this tournament. Nothing else is even close anywhere else. I haven’t played worldwide, but no tournament in America is close to being this diverse."
The 2008 Hawaii State Open champ moved to Hawaii when he was 17, "living and breathing at Kalakaua and Leilehua" as he worked on his game. His father, Maj. Gen. Ray Mason, started Nick in the game a year before they moved here and will caddie this week. "I taught him all I know about golf," Ray told a military publication last year. "But he forgot it and has been fine ever since."
Canadian Nick Taylor also is here. He made his pro debut in October after earning last year’s Ben Hogan Award, given to the top collegiate golfer. He was the world’s top-ranked amateur 21 straight weeks, with 18 Top 10’s his final two seasons at University of Washington.
His coach at UW, Matt Thurmond, got to know Ishii, Pearl’s Director of Golf. Thurmond was aware Taylor and his brother Josh, who played for UTEP, would be in Hawaii practicing this week and convinced them to enter.
Nick Taylor, low amateur at the 2009 U.S. Open, plans to play the Canadian Tour when it starts in May, and try to Monday qualify for Nationwide Tour. He has a PGA Tour exemption at Colonial in May but will probably spend most of 2011 "jumping around trying to find places to play."
So will many playing Pearl this week, who are also on the long list of those who came up short at Q-School:
» Two-time NAIA champ Sam Cyr, from Makawao. The King Kekaulike graduate outlasted Dean Wilson to make last year’s Mid-Pacific Open his first professional victory;
» Two-time state high school champion Jarett Hamamoto;
» Punahou graduate Jim Seki, the 2002 Pac-10 champion for Stanford. Seki, low amateur in 1998 at Pearl, won the 1998 state high school championship;
» Turtle Bay’s Tony and Gipper Finau, from Utah;
» Jesse Mueller, from Arizona, who tied the tournament scoring record (19-under 197) when he won in 2009;
» 2008 Canadian Tour Player of the Year John Ellis, from San Jose, who has been in the top six at Pearl the last three years.
The variety at Pearl does not end with pros in search of the perfect tour. The 1999 U.S. Senior Open champion — Hawaii’s Dave Eichelberger — will play at age 67. Rudy Cabalar, Lorens Chan and Masamichi Ito might be the best of the young guns, all at 16. While Cabalar and Chan have sparkled in Hawaii, the 5-foot-1 Ito made his mark in Japan when he became the youngest to make a cut in a tour event — two years ago.
Qualifiers include Moanalua freshman John Oda, Kalani sophomore Richard Hattori and Eimi Koga, a Moanalua sophomore who caddied for the winner last year. She is one of five females, along with Hawaii pros Mari Chun and Ayaka Kaneko.
Chun is playing her first Pearl Open, but volunteered for eight years before heading to Stanford. She has been working with former Pearl pro "Uncle" Allan Yamamoto, another Hawaii Golf Hall of Famer. Chun is using the tournament as a warmup for the Yumeya Dream Cup, later this month in Japan.
"I remember watching the players growing up and I admired them," Chun said. "It didn’t occur to me to try and enter, but some friends told me to play. I wanted to kick off my season earlier. This really stretches my abilities and it’s a good head start in my own game development, and for future events.
"This is a really good tournament. The people that are playing … you can’t get that type of competition in many places."