For a golf tournament with a relatively mellow tradition, the Hilo Invitational sure has a serious bunch of champions. Most are connected.
David Ishii won the inaugural event in 1998, followed by Kevin Hayashi and Greg Meyer, who grew up playing Hilo Municipal Golf Course. All three are in the Hawaii Golf Hall of Fame, and Hayashi and Meyer both worked with Ishii at Pearl Country Club.
Meyer and Ishii play on the Japan tour and Hayashi is an eight-time Aloha Section PGA Player of the Year. He teaches at Hilo Municipal, where the tournament tees off Saturday and Sunday.
Dean Wilson, currently Hawaii’s only active PGA Tour player, captured the next two titles. In 2001, he opened with a 9-under-par 63 and set the 18- and 36-hole (129) records. A year later, he beat state high school champ Jarett Hamamoto by four.
Hamamoto, another Hilo boy, got his title in 2006, in the midst of an amateur blitz that started with Nick Mason in 2004. Mason was the first amateur to take the title, Kellen-Floyd Asao the second a year later and Hamamoto the third.
There hasn’t been one since, but the three-year surge was memorable. Asao needed a birdie to win a three-way playoff in 2005. He beat amateurs Garrett Okamura and Jonathan Ota. Hamamoto was a shot better than Hayashi — his cousin — the next year.
Kevin Carll broke the amateurs’ hold in 2007 and Mason won the next two titles as a pro. Amateurs Jacob Low and Stephanie Kono were 2-3 in 2008.
Last year Low, another Hilo boy, made the hometown tournament his first pro victory. He beat David Kim and Ryan Perez by a shot, with the ubiquitous Mason two back.
Low, Mason, Asao, Carll, Hamamoto and Ishii will all play this year. Others in the field include former Manoa Cup champs Travis Toyama and Ota, and Matt Ma, who was low amateur at this month’s Hawaii Pearl Open. Hilo’s Kimberly Kim asked if she could play before embarking on her LPGA career. Juniors Brittany and Michael Fan and Ciera Min have entered.
The senior flight is stacked. Champions Tour player Dave Eichelberger is in, as is Ishii, Casey Nakama, Dean Prince, Lance Taketa and Larry Stubblefield, another Hall of Famer.
Mason’s nonstop presence near the top should be no surprise. The Leilehua graduate played for Hawaii-Hilo. The Vulcans practice at Hilo Municipal during the week and play 36 holes on the other side of the island on the weekend.
They grow accustomed to the Hilo Muni’s unusual face: The course has no bunkers or — surprise — irrigation. Who needs it in Hilo?
It also has what is commonly known as "Hilo Grass." Hayashi describes it as "big blades" that allow the golf ball to settle in. It puts a premium on ball-striking and, especially, chipping.
"If you can chip in Hilo," Hayashi says, "you can chip any place in the world."
The wealth of talent that has come out of Hilo offers ample evidence. The unusual grass isn’t the only challenge around the greens, which Hayashi believes might be in the "best shape ever." Hilo Muni’s greens are elevated, so speed is critical to keep the ball from rolling off the back or, even worse, front.
Professionals play for $15,000 this weekend, with the winner getting $5,000. Amateurs play for $4,300, which Hayashi terms a payout that is "unbelievable, no one else is close." The top 20 are paid, with 15 to 20 getting $100.
Gift certificates can be used in ways that let you know they are from Hilo: Amateurs can cash out at the Hilo Muni pro shop or KTA grocery store, as well as Sears.
"We’re more relaxed," Hayashi says. "This is a local-style tournament."