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Fujikawa returns to Sony Open as a pro

HONOLULU (AP) — One putt gave Tadd Fujikawa celebrity status in Hawaii. One week changed his life. And one year later, the 5-foot junior in high school has one tough act to follow in the Sony Open.

The past came rushing back during the Pro-Junior shootout at Waialae Country Club, and the kid embraced the moment.

Walking up to the 18th green for the final skills challenge, the master of ceremonies pointed to a spot on the green where Fujikawa holed a 15-foot eagle putt to shoot 66 in the second round and become the youngest player in 50 years to make the cut on the PGA Tour.

"No, it was here," Fujikawa said, hamming it up for a grandstand of junior golfers, parents and fans who look upon him with as much adoration as they once held for Michelle Wie.

Then he stood on the spot without a golf ball, putted toward an imaginary hole and delivered his version of instant replay. He dropped the putter and marched off with both hands in the air, then crouched to deliver an uppercut with a smile brighter than an afternoon sun over the shores of Oahu.

When the Pro-Junior Shootout ended Tuesday, sponsors brought a chocolate cake to Fujikawa to celebrate his 17th birthday.

"I feel old," he said, smiling.

Indeed, time moved at warp speed in 2007.

Fujikawa wound up in a tie for 20th last year. A few months later, he won the Pearl Open against a field that includes several pros from Japan. And by the summer, he decided to turn pro with two years left in high school.

He qualified as an amateur last year. He received a sponsor's exemption as a professional this year, the first full field of the season.

"It would be pretty tough to top last year," Fujikawa said Wednesday before his pro-am round. "It was pretty special last year, just because I was kind of new to that thing, and it just kind of call all of a sudden, and I wasn't really ready for it. But it was fun. I think the only way I could top last year would be if I win this year."

Now that would be a tall order.

The one thing that hasn't changed from a year ago is his career earnings on tour, which is still at zero. Fujikawa played three times on the PGA Tour, twice on the Nationwide Tour, once on the European tour and once in Japan, not making the cut in any of them.

"I'm playing for money now, but I don't really think about it, honestly. Maybe I should be thinking about it," he said, smiling. "My mom brought it up to me about three or four months ago. She was like, 'You know, you haven't made any money yet.' I'm playing for money now, so I'd better start doing better! No, I still feel the same way about golf and about the way I play the game."

The game looks fundamentally sound.

Fred Funk was playing behind Fujikawa on Monday and couldn't believe how far and straight he was hitting it, although everyone looks long off the tee to Funk. Fujikawa can hit driver about 275 yards in the air, a stock distance on tour, and few question his desire.

The decision to turn pro remains a topic of discussion.

It was largely financial, but not to reap instant cash. Fujikawa's father is a self-employed contractor, and his mother works part-time in an auto repair store. They figured it was tough to travel as an amateur, so he opted to play for money while finishing his last two years.

Endorsements are coming slowly and differently from others.

Fujikawa has a deal with Aloha Petroleum, and this week added Kraft Foods Hawaii. Both are based more on appearances around Hawaii than having to wear logos on his clothing and bag and making corporate appearances. Terms were not disclosed, although Fujikawa said it should help pay for his travel expenses.

There will be two teenagers at the Sony Open for the second straight year, although Wie is not one of them. She is skipping the PGA Tour event for the first time since her first exemption in 2004, when she came within one shot of making the cut.

The other teen is 17-year-old Alex Ching, who was Fujikawa's amateur partner in the Pro-Junior shootout. Ching said it was Fujikawa's success that persuaded sponsors to keep the amateur spot given to the best player in the Governor's Cup, an annual competition among teenagers on the islands.

"I've got some nervous jitters," Ching said. "I'm just going to try my best."

That's what Fujikawa said a year ago, and that's how he feels now. And it's a sentiment shared by several other newcomers at Waialae who are about to taste life on the PGA Tour for the first time.

The first full tournament of the year brings optimism, not to mention introductions. It is not uncommon for players to look first at the name on the bag to figure out who some of these guys are. Twenty-two rookies are at Waialae this week.

The defending champion is Paul Goydos, who won last year for the first time in nearly 11 years.

Goydos believes he's a better player than he was a year ago, and has felt that way since he first joined the PGA Tour. But he compared that with corporate fiscal performances, and realizes that sometimes getting better isn't good enough.

"Everyone is getting better," Goydos said. "If you're 5 percent better, then yes, you are a better player. But against your peers, you're back a little bit. We're getting younger players, better players. If you don't improve by a reasonable amount, you're falling backward."

Younger is relative these days. Goydos has a daughter older than Fujikawa.

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