HONOLULU, Hawaii – Ryo Ishikawa threw a few balls into the greenside bunker on the 10th hole at Waialae Country Club, splashed them onto the green and watched them roll past the pin. Not 75 yards away, on the sumptuous Kahala Hotel & Resort's private beach, two-time Sony Open winner Corey Pavin was splayed out on a chaise lounge, smoking a stogie and reading a book. Mia Parnevik, wife of Jesper, was wrapped in a towel after taking a dip in the ocean. David Spade was sitting poolside, and Sir Elton John was finishing up lunch with a large coterie of friends, including his husband, David Furnish.
So it goes at the Sony, the first full-field event of the PGA Tour season, where nothing is more glaring than the contrast between the wide-eyed newbies and the established veterans. The younger, lesser-known players — the field includes 23 Nationwide Tour graduates — stay mostly on the strip on Waikiki Beach. The established veterans stay at the Kahala, where rooms start at $495 a night and run all the way up to the $10,000-a-day Imperial Suite. They're in a position to afford it — the pros get only a slight discount — and often have bigger families to enjoy it. The hotel is easily among the top three most popular on Tour.
"You could argue top one," said Zach Johnson, who won the 2009 Sony and is going into his ninth year on Tour. "I didn't get to go to Maui, so we got here Friday and beached it [at the Kahala]."
Johnson spent much of Tuesday afternoon at a kids' clinic, where he won the skills challenge with his younger partner, also named Zach. On the range, pros with less familiar names were settling in, trying to get ready to impress without being too impressed with the scenery. "I've got to get a look at this silky-smooth action," Harris English said as he stepped onto the practice area. Vijay Singh was practicing at the far end of the range, and English, 22, had never seen him up close.
English is one of the few rookies staying at the Kahala, which has hosted almost every president since Lyndon Johnson and can prove as much on its wall of fame, a lineup of framed photographs that runs the length of a hallway. (Ironically, President Barack Obama has not stayed at the hotel, but he did have a fundraiser there in August of 2008.)
Given his pedigree as a rookie, maybe English belongs there. An All-American at Georgia, he won the Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational as an amateur last July. That got him to the second stage of Q-school, and he advanced to the finals, where he finished tied for 13th to earn full status on the PGA Tour. The Sony will be his first Tour start.
"I'm kind of new to all this," English said. "It's kind of crazy how fast everything has happened. You see all these guys on TV, so it's kind of cool to see them in real life. I'm just glad to be out here. I've been working for this for a long time. I'm staying with Brian Harman, who I played with at Georgia, so we're kind of going through this together."
Of the 26 rookies on Tour, 24 are playing the Sony. Then there are players like Colt Knost, who is starting his third season on Tour but is by no means an established player. His number in the Q-school/Nationwide graduate category is 50, which is so high that he was convinced he wasn't going to get into the Sony until he found out he was in last Friday.
"This is one of my favorite courses, so I'm excited," Knost said. "I played decent here last year [tied for 34th] despite not putting that well."
Knost stays on the strip in Waikiki. "I just like being down where all the restaurants are, and getting away from the golf course," he said. John Merrick's wife and baby boy are home in Long Beach, Calif., so there was no need to splurge on the Kahala. Asked if he ran into any stars there on past visits, Merrick said coolly, "I think Kanye West was over there a couple years ago with his model girlfriend." (Adam Sandler is a mainstay at the hotel, but no one seems to have seen him this week.)
Only conditionally exempt last year, Merrick never knew where he would make his next start, and he came to the end of the year just hoping to hang on inside the top 125 on the money list. He was such a nervous wreck by the Disney that he missed the cut, but he still finished 119th and can exhale as he gets ready to begin his 2012 season.
"It should be good," he said. "I'll get in the Players. I like to play quite a few tournaments, like 26 or 27, and I only played 21 last year."
Carl Pettersson, a four-time winner going into his 10th year, also came to Hawaii as a single. His 7-year-old daughter, Carlie, is in school, and Carl and his wife, DeAnna, decided not to pull her out to go to Hawaii. Still, Pettersson, who's been practicing three times a week at home in Raleigh, N.C., had no doubt about where to stay: the Kahala.
"It's actually my favorite hotel on Tour," he said. "It's a little weird staying there without the wife and kids. They love it, too. I don't rent a car, I don't need to leave and I walk to and from work. If I want to go into town, I take a taxi. And this is one of the best courses we play. It's old school. Every hole moves a little bit, and it's playing really well this year, pretty firm, which makes it a better course."
Tim Petrovic didn't qualify for the Sony — he fell out of the top 125 last year — but he brought the family to Hawaii anyway. He shot 69 to miss by a shot at the Monday qualifier. The ninth alternate, he stood on the practice green in flip-flops, working on his stroke and his tan.
"These are my Hawaiian golf shoes," he said.
With hair sprouting well beyond the edges of his visor he recalled Jeff Spicoli, at one with his surroundings and at peace with whatever happens. He's written to ask for sponsors' exemptions, but he has yet to land one. He'll probably get into Pebble Beach, and he'll likely try to Monday-qualify for the other West Coast tournaments. He's a long shot to get into the Sony but figures after 10 years he's due for a little more time with the family. And he's at the Kahala, where he lunched at a table next to Sir Elton upon his arrival last Saturday.
As Petrovic waits at Waialae, he could be excused for feeling like he's already made it.