Wednesday, January 14, 2009

By Doug Ferguson
Associated Press Golf Writer


HONOLULU — Anymore, the Sony Open just wouldn't be the same without a teenager in the news.

This is the tournament where Michelle Wie received a sponsor's exemption when she was 14, then shot 68 in the second round and missed the cut. Tadd Fujikawa had just turned 16 when he not only made the cut, he tied for 20th.

Among the 144 players at Waialae this week is Lorens Chan, who is four years away from a high school diploma and still needs adult supervision to drive a golf cart.

But the question is not what a 14-year-old is doing inside the ropes at a PGA Tour event.

It's why more PGA Tour events don't try to copy the Sony Open.

For the last decade or so, the Sony Open has used one of its four unrestricted sponsor exemptions on a top amateur from Hawaii.

They are chosen through the Governor's Cup, a yearlong competition named after former Gov. John Burns, who wanted to help develop junior golf on the island. The 12 amateurs who qualify then compete in an 18-hole tournament at Waialae in late December.

First prize? A spot in the Sony Open.

"That's pretty cool," Geoff Ogilvy said. "More tournaments should do that."

Chan shot a career-best 67, then won a three-way playoff with a birdie on the first extra hole. "Pretty much the shot of my life," he said Tuesday, recalling his wedge out of the rough and over a bunker to 6 feet on the 10th hole.

Two weeks later, he was on the range at Waialae, where he has been a member since starting golf seven years ago. Only this time, he found himself next to Bubba Watson and Stewart Cink.

Chan also was wearing shorts late Monday afternoon, as he usually does as Waialae, but he since received the memo that shorts are a no-no on the PGA Tour, even early in the week and late in the day. Tour officials would have reminded him that day, but they had no idea he was in the field. They thought he was part of the pro-am.

Chan is a freshman at Iolani School, stands 5-foot-7 and barely weighs more than 100 pounds, not much different from when Charles Howell III played in his first PGA Tour event.

Howell was 15 when he received a sponsor's exemption to the old Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens. A rising star in the junior ranks, he shot 80-75 and missed the cut. But he can appreciate what it means to an amateur to play with the best.

"What a neat thing," Howell said. "It's a great way to grow the game. It was an overwhelming experience for me, but it was hugely motivational. It told me a lot about my game."

Such as?

"That I had a lot of work to do," Howell said with a laugh.

Imagine a city like Dallas, which is loaded with great amateur golfers, staging a similar event and awarding the winner a tee time in the HP Byron Nelson Championship. Or saving one spot for the top amateur golfer in Los Angeles for the Northern Trust Open at Riviera.

The Sony Open spot isn't for teenagers - they just happen to be the best amateurs in Hawaii.

"These young players are amazing," Sony Open tournament director Ray Stosik said. "Half the high schools in Hawaii don't even have a golf team. It's not like we have the greatest facilities, or all the world-renowned teachers. These kids have a great work ethic."

The concept is not entirely novel.

The Memorial Tournament offers a spot to the winner of the Jack Nicklaus Award for top college player, along with the reigning U.S. Amateur and British Amateur champions. The Buick Invitational stages an 18-hole qualifier at Torrey Pines for college players.

Giving away such spots always lead to resentment from some corners, mainly players toward the bottom of the food chain.

But tournaments have unrestricted sponsor exemptions for a reason - to boost interest in the event. Michelle Wie had no shortage of offers when she was still in high school. Ditto for John Daly before he was suspended. And don't forget the old Kemper Open giving a spot in 1992 to former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien.

"The tour doesn't like to give up spots," Stosik said. "They have tried indirectly to get it back. But we're so far removed. It's not easy for these amateurs to get to the mainland. For many of them, it's a chance to kick-start their career."

Parker McLachlin, who grew up on Oahu, made his PGA Tour debut at the 2000 Sony Open through the Governor's Cup.

"I was a sophomore in college, and that was a huge thing for me," he said. "It was a way to give me a taste of the tour, the level of play on tour. You couldn't put a price tag on that."

Cink still remembers playing the BellSouth Classic while in college, making a 10-foot putt to make the cut.

"All good players always wonder how good they are," Cink said. "They see it on TV and you can't get a real appreciation. Put them inside the ropes and let them play the first two rounds with a real tour player, then look at the score and see how they compare."

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said the program works in Hawaii, but "I'm not sure it has the same impact on the mainland."

When asked whether it could work in communities such as Dallas, Tampa, Charlotte or Los Angeles, he said each has more flexibility with its exemptions, but "taking additional spots is probably a direction we wouldn't go."

Chan might not break 80 this week. Or he might tie for 20th.

"Have you seen him play? I played in the state open with him and he kicked my butt," Dean Wilson said.

Whatever the case, the local kid with big dreams getting one chance to compete against the best of the PGA Tour will generate more interest in the community and bring out more fans than giving the spot to a tour player no one knows.

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