Pearl Open Is Looking Bigger

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - February 04, 2009
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Media golf days are wonderful things. Gifted with 18 holes and lunch on courses most of us could only enter if we scaled the fence, it is a fun half day of variously bad play, friendly ribbing and the constant search for free lessons.

Sometimes it gets even more special such as when you get the rare opportunity of watching your ball land further along that the professional’s lessened attempt.

That was by far the best part of playing at the Pearl Country Club a week ago in anticipation of the 31st annual Hawaii Pearl Open.

Sure, PCC assistant pro Regan Lee hit from the tips and I off the white tees - and, yes, he wasn’t really taking it seriously on this the second hole - like pro-ams, these media invites are not about embarrassing the attendees with full displays of actual skill.

But further along the fairway is closer to the pin. I am taking it.

Unfortunately it was the last time such a fluke would happen. The rest of the day his ball tore through the air with that particular unholy, air slicing sound as if each molecule of oxygen and helium were speeding to get out of the way of the fast-moving dimpled satellite.

The Hawaii Pearl Open may be the most unique tournament that you have never heard of.

Though lacking the word-of-mouth recognition of the Manoa Cup, Mid-Pac Open or even the Jenny K., the Open has found its niche as a top draw for Hawaii’s best talent and top pros and future stars from the Mainland, Japan, Canada and elsewhere. Offering a strange and entertaining mix of young and old, English speaking and not, the tournament can offer rarely seen pairing that can match up 13-year-old Japanese amateur Masamichi Ito with 65-year-old PGA and Champions Tour veteran Dave Eichelberger.

The HPO was created by Soichiro Honda, founder of the Honda Motor company, to provide Hawaii golfers the opportunity to face top flight competition and to be bridge between east and west.

His tournament has succeeded.

The roster of past participants is a who’s who of local and international golf. Tadd Fujikawa won as an amateur two years ago. PGA Hall of Famer David Ishii has taken it six times including three in a row from 1989-1991.

PGA and Japan tour veteran Akiyoshi Ohmachi hoisted the trophy in 1986. And in 2002 a 12-year-old Michelle Wie teed it up for the first time. She wasn’t the last female to do so - Stepanie Kono and Cyd Okina were soon to follow along with many others from across the Pacific pond.

The event also has been marked by tantalizing play and tight finishes.

Lance Suzuki was pushed to the limit on both of his wins. In 1993 it took a birdie on the first playoff hole to secure victory and two years later he needed two birdies on the final three holes to defeat defending champ Kevin Hiyashi.

In 2001 Japan pro Hidemichi Tanaka and Hilo’s Greg Meyer (a three-time winner) battled it out on the last day until Tanaka eagled 17 to take a one-shot lead.

Jeff Cook used three straight birdies on the final three holes to defeat Jerry Mullin, Kevin Hayashi and Tomohiro Maruyama by a single stroke in 1999.

Then, of course, was the introduction of 16-year-old Ryo Ishikawa.

One year ago, the club’s 198 acres were crammed with media and fans interested in seeing and talking to the “bashful prince.” The golfer made headlines a year earlier becoming the youngest person to win on the Japan Tour and since has been under the intense focus of the Japanese media while unwillingly taking on the role of teen idol.

PCC’s president Tsugio Ogata says many of the Japanese competitors consider the HPO a lucky tournament.

Ishikawa is no doubt one of them. The now-60th ranked golfer on World Golf Rankings made good use of karma by following his 10th place finish at the HPO with a win and six top 10 finishes to end the year No. 5 on the Japan Tour’s money list.

He wasn’t the only one to find post Pearl success.

Last year’s winner, Azuma Yano, finished second on the money list and qualified for the U.S. Open. Ishikawa, won’t be back for 2009, he’s already accepted invites to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill and that little tournament at Augusta in April.

But Tadd will be there, and if you couldn’t stomach the crowds at the Sony, this is a way to get an up close look at Hawaii’s most popular golfer.

And to do so for free.

The Hawaii Pearl Open’s future as a spectator’s destination may very well depend on the state’s ability to hold on to its tour stops. The future of professional golf in Hawaii is tenuous.

What had been a seven-stop tour for the PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour has already been whittled down by two with the loss of the LPGA Fields Open at Ko Olina and the Champions Tour stop at Turtle Bay.

What made these stops profitable for players and attractive to sponsors was the back-to-back pay days. Each tournament benefited from the other. The loss of the Fields Open puts added pressure on the SBS Open at Turtle Bay, whose canceling of it’s own tournament could jeopardize the Champions Tour stop at Hualalai.

And though Sony appears to be solidly behind its annual event at Waialae, the loss of the Mercedes - which is a very real possibility - would make it even harder to draw the tour’s top talent to the event that already has no chance landing Tiger, Phil, Sergio et al.

What’s bad for them could be great for the Hawaii Pearl Open.

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