Saturday, January 17, 2009

HONOLULU (AP) — It's easy to spot the teenagers at the Sony Open.

They're the ones who never seem to leave Waialae, lingering on the practice range or putting green, the dining room or locker room. They're the ones trying to soak up every minute of their PGA Tour experience.

Tadd Fujikawa should be used to this by now, but he had reason to leave the club three hours after his second round ended in near darkness. He was celebrating his first PGA Tour cut as a pro with dinner at an oceanfront hotel.

Ten hours later, he was back at Waialae on Saturday with the same big smile, ready to get back to work.

"Nice going, Tadd," Ryuji Imada said to him, slapping hands as they passed each other in the locker room.

This is nothing new.

Two years ago, when he was 16, Fujikawa shot a 66 in the second round and became the youngest player in 50 years to make the cut on the PGA Tour. He tied for 20th at the Sony Open, then decided to turn pro that summer.

It looked like another poor decision, especially at a time when Michelle Wie was in a free fall and Ty Tryon was MIA.

Fujikawa, however, comes from a meager background and couldn't afford too many trips to the mainland. He took sponsor exemptions while his name was still in the news, but it wasn't long before he became old news. He missed the cut in all six of his PGA Tour starts, three times on the European tour and was 2-for-4 in cuts made on the Japanese tour. His highest finish was a tie for 48th in The Crowns.

Including his victory in the Mid-Pacific Open, Fujikawa's total earnings on the course are just under $20,000.

Asked at the start of the week if he had any regrets, the 5-foot-1 high school senior quickly shook his head and smiled. It is rare when he doesn't smile.

"We probably wouldn't have too much money to travel and stuff," he said. "It would have been tough. I wouldn't have the opportunity to play as many tournaments as I did if I stayed an amateur."

His plan the rest of the year is to graduate in May, then perhaps play the Tar Heel Tour or some other smaller circuit. Just like Wie when she was in high school, he is hurt by a schedule that precludes him from gaining momentum and building confidence.

But of all the experiences, this month might have provided the best.

Fujikawa, who grew up on municipal courses in Honolulu and is among the biggest draws at Waialae, did not receive a sponsor's exemption. He had to go through a pre-qualifying round Sunday at Turtle Bay, then the Monday qualifier for one of four spots.

He noticed the difference between a handout and earning his way into the field.

"The exemptions are good, and it's an easy way to get in for me," he said. "But the respect that I get from the other players, it's a little different when you Monday qualify. That's kind of the vibe that I've gotten from the players. It's a good vibe. I really like it. It was an awesome feeling. Earning my way in and then making the cut is even better."

When he arrived Saturday morning, he had a green-and-white carry bag from Sea Island, where swing coach Todd Anderson lives. It was the bag he used during his two rounds of qualifying.

"Good memories," he said.

Among those on the range Saturday morning was former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, who congratulated Fujikawa for his good play over two rounds of sometimes wet and constantly windy conditions.

Azinger said players have more respect for someone who goes through qualifying, but it matters most to the guy who earned it.

"It's like someone who spends four hours putting, and then stands over a 4-foot putt that he absolutely has to make," Azinger said. "You can say, 'I practiced for four hours to make a putt like this and I deserve to make this.' Or you can say, 'I practiced for four hours to make a putt like this, and I better not miss it.'

"In a situation like that, I always felt like I earned the right to make the putt," he said. "And I'm sure that's how Tadd felt about his game. He worked hard, and that dude should be proud. Because it wasn't easy out here."

Fujikawa was on the cut line after nearly driving onto the street next to Waialae on his 15th hole. He knuckled down with drives that split the middle of the fairway, made easy pars, then finished with a two-putt birdie for a 69 to make the cut with one shot to spare.

Provided he doesn't get disqualified Sunday, he will cash his first PGA Tour check. His goal on the weekend was no different from other players - post the lowest score possible and try to move up the leaderboard.

"Two years ago, my expectation was to make the cut, but this year I'm out there to win," he said. "I know I can do it, and I think what I've done with my game, and the improvements I've made, hopefully by next year I can get my card and be on my way."

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