At barely 20 years old, Tadd Fujikawa’s ohana is now where he tees it up. Today he begins his assault on the NGA Hooters Pro Golf Tour when he opens his season in the Killearn Country Club Classic at Tallahassee, Fla.
Mom Lori and dog Waialae will be outside the ropes. Moanalua High School buddy Ryan Perez is now carrying his bag.
Life is good.
"I’m really, really comfortable out here," said Fujikawa, who couldn’t remember what city he was in when reached by phone earlier this week. "It helps having my mom with me. It can get really lonely by myself. Also, having Ryan when I’m playing really, really helps. And having my coaches where I live (at Sea Island, Ga.) … it can’t get any better than that.
"They are all so supportive of me no matter what I’m doing. It’s always positive. Even if I’m not performing as well as I should be, they always have my back."
Fujikawa’s performances from the age of 15 have sometimes been spectacular. The 5-foot-1 menehune became the youngest ever to qualify for the U.S. Open in 2006. At 16, he was the second-youngest ever to make a PGA Tour cut, finishing 20th at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
He turned pro that summer and received invitations to play in European, Japan and U.S. tour events, winning the first of back-to-back Mid-Pacific Opens here to cash his first check. He started 2009 with a third-round 62 that put the Sony crowd into a frenzy.
Last year, he finished fourth on the eGolf Tour money list ($75,118) and won the eGolf Tour Championship by nine shots. After failing to advance from the second stage of the PGA Tour Q-School, he came home to win the Hawaii State Open.
By then, Fujikawa had made his mind up to play the Hooters Tour. The format is more like the PGA and Nationwide tours, with fields of 168, cuts (and payouts) to the low 65 and ties and pro-ams. Golfers have to walk and wear long pants, and range finders are not allowed. Organizers called to tell him he was exempt from qualifying because of his previous success.
The tour was started by Hawaii’s Rick Jordan in 1988. Hooters Restaurants signed a 20-year title sponsorship agreement at the end of 1995. Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch and Bridgestone are also involved and the National Golf Association is the sanctioning body for what is billed as the third-largest American tour.
This year’s "anticipated total payout" is $6 million-plus, for 32 events — half within a 6-hour drive of Atlanta. Membership is $2,000 and each Pro Series start costs $1,150, with a guaranteed purse of at least $200,000. The top 30 at the end get Q-School fees reimbursed.
This week’s field includes PGA Tour winner David Gossett and seven Nationwide Tour members. NGA/Hooters Tour alumni have won 12 majors and include Sony Open champs Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson, along with Hawaii’s Parker McLachlin. It is where Fujikawa feels he needs to be to reach the next level.
"I need to get out there and play tournaments and hopefully win and put myself in contention every week," he says. "And learn how to play on a week-to-week basis. Keep improving. I’m always learning out here."
He knows that will never end, but there is now more trust in the swing that has undergone a major overhaul and Fujikawa thinks he has "found something" in his putting the past few days.
"I tend to try too hard," he explains. "I need to be relaxed when I putt."
Maybe the game’s intricacies will come together on this tour and it will be the place where Fujikawa’s talent will make peace with his impatience. When that has happened before, it has been sweet to see, his huge smile overwhelming everything and fist pumps flying.
Perez tried the eGolf Tour last year after graduating from the University of Hawaii. He might be Fujikawa’s biggest backer — outside of the Fujikawas. The two have known each other most of the past decade. Both worked with Kevin Ralbovsky here and now Todd Anderson in Georgia.
Perez, able to be funny and focused simultaneously, is ecstatic. The move gives him time to spend with his mom’s family in North Carolina, and he knows Fujikawa’s swing as well as anyone. The 2004 Manoa Cup champ believes he has found a new calling.
"It all really unfolded as it should," Perez said. "Nothing was forced. It just happened.
"Out on the course we work together really well and it’s so easy. I sat down one day last year after I caddied for him and thought, ‘Man this is so much more fun than playing.’ That’s really what it came down to.
"I sat on the decision for a while, whether I wanted to play or caddie for him. I felt like, when I caddie for him we work well together, there’s no stress. I really feel like I’m fulfilled. It just felt so right. It’s so cool how it happened. I’m extremely happy it happened.
"I changed my dream. I didn’t give up on the dream of golf, but this is a new dream. Tadd wants to make it to the PGA Tour and I want to get him there."