Tadd Different: Fujikawa is Hawaii's other golf prodigy

Tadd Different: Fujikawa is Hawaii’s other golf prodigy

There are endorsement deals on the horizon for Tadd, but they're for small change when compared with Wie's.
Todd Bigelow/Aurora

The other day Tadd Fujikawa and his father, Derrick, went fishing in the beautiful waters off Sand Island in Honolulu, where Derrick has been a regular since he was a boy fishing with his dad. The outing had to be crammed into the narrow window between Tadd’s morning at Moanalua High and his afternoon as a pro golfer, chock-full as it was of media interviews, business meetings and a long practice session at Honolulu Country Club under the watchful gaze of his mother, Lori. As Derrick piloted the 19-foot skiff through some choppy water, both Fujikawas went to great lengths to explain why no fish would be caught: The tide was too high, fish don’t bite in the afternoon, etc. According to Derrick, there was only one glimmer: “Taddy boy is the luckiest guy in the world, so you never know.”

Tadd, 16, has been so consumed by golf since he turned pro this summer that he and his father hadn’t been fishing together in a while. As Tadd loosened up with a few idle casts, Derrick was unimpressed with his son’s deteriorated form. “You throw like a girl, bruddah.”

One so-so cast was followed by one word of commentary: “Shank.”

Tadd simply rolled his eyes. “He’s always like this, unfortunately,” he said.

Derrick and Tadd’s conversation was a mishmash of English, Japanese and Hawaiian, a reflection of the family’s polyglot roots. Derrick finally stopped the boat in his secret spot, above a cave in the reef, where he claimed the fish like to loiter. Tadd unfurled a majestic cast, and no sooner had the lure hit the water than his rod began twitching violently. Moments later he had reeled in a three-pound papio, its body a striking, translucent blue.

Derrick seemed more excited about having his prediction confirmed than the fish itself: “I told you, he’s the luckiest guy in the world!”

Tadd lazily made another half-dozen casts. When a papio grows up — say, above 10 pounds — the locals call it a ulua. It has razor-sharp rails on its fins, which it uses to stun its prey. Off in the distance the water exploded around Tadd’s lure. A ulua had tried to smack it with its fin before biting down on the hook.

“Big one!” Derrick yelled.

Tadd, his rod bent nearly in half, sweat already beginning to pour off his forehead, still managed some perfect teenaged snarkiness: “Hello, I know that. I’m the one holding the rod!”

Tadd won his first junior judo national championship at age eight. He has the balance and grace of a ballet dancer, combined with the powerful lower body of a fullback. He danced around the boat, fighting the fish and fending off the excited commentary of his dad. After a heroic battle that lasted at least 10 minutes, he reeled in a 17-pound ulua that was so big it wouldn’t fit in the ice chest. Derrick took a knife and hacked the ulua’s gills so it would bleed out, ensuring that the next day’s homemade sashimi would have white meat, not pink. Tadd didn’t hide his disgust: “Ewww, that’s gross.”

Later Derrick and Tadd waded into waist-deep water to hunt octopuses with spears, poking into the holes where the mysterious creatures like to hide. They were having a ball, but with a sigh Derrick cut short the trip. “We have to get to the course or Moms is going to be pissed.”

“Practice always comes first,” said Tadd, who in his short professional career has already discovered that in golf it is not quite so easy to land the big one.

In July, when Fujikawa turned pro, the move occasioned plenty of head-scratching, and some undisguised scorn. The day Tadd made his announcement, John Francis, whose son Phillip is a top amateur now enrolled at UCLA, told SI, “I would personally be embarrassed for my son to do that.”

Because Fujikawa is a teenager from Hawaii it is irresistible to draw comparisons with Michelle Wie, who has become a $10 million-a-year cautionary tale. Like Wie, Fujikawa burst onto the scene at the Sony Open in Hawaii. In his case it was last January, when he became the youngest player in a half century to make the cut at a PGA Tour event. It wasn’t only the achievement that resonated but also Fujikawa’s panache. On his 36th hole he made a spectacular eagle, chasing the ball into the hole with a roundhouse fist-pump that was pure exuberance. The next day he shot a 66 to surge into a tie for eighth, and Hawaii fairly shook. Fujikawa ran out of magic on Sunday, shooting 72, but still finished a very creditable 20th. (He would have collected $54,228.57 had he not been an amateur.) What made Fujikawa impossible not to root for was the figure he cut on the course: Born more than three months premature and weighing less than two pounds, he has topped out at 5’1″ and 135.

As diminutive as Fujikawa is, it would be a mistake to underestimate his fighting spirit. “In judo he was like a wild animal,” says Derrick, an instructor at the Salt Lake Judo Club, which has been run for decades by his father, Danny. “All the kids were a head taller, but they would cry when they had to face him because they were so scared.” A month after the Sony, Fujikawa won the Pearl Open, a pro tournament in Hawaii that attracts regulars from the Japanese tour. Fujikawa iced the tournament with approach shots to two feet or less on two of the final three holes.

His success against the pros convinced Fujikawa that he had outgrown amateur golf, but his parents were tortured about letting him play for pay and spent months trying to talk him out of it. Tadd ultimately wore them down. In many quarters Wie’s career has come to be viewed as little more than a cynical cash grab, and Fujikawa’s decision to go pro was inevitably seen in the same light. “The comparisons are unfair because we’re different people and our situations are very different,” Tadd says.

Wie is the daughter of a university professor and attended the Punahou School, a bastion of the Hawaiian elite. Fujikawa was offered a scholarship there but instead chose Moanalua, a large public high school that, according to a news clipping in the school’s front office, draws from a district with a median annual income of $38,427, below the state average. Explaining his decision, Tadd says, “I feel more comfortable there. It’s more my kind of place.”

Derrick is a self-employed contractor specializing in plumbing and air conditioning, and the work comes and goes. (His gig as a judo instructor is unpaid.) Lori works part time doing paperwork for an auto body shop, but spends most of her time attending to her son’s hectic schedule. Her duties include acting as chauffeur because Tadd has been too busy to get his driver’s license, or so he claims.

The Fujikawas’ humble material circumstances played a big part in Tadd’s decision to turn pro. When he was an amateur, the outside assistance he (or the family) could receive to defray travel expenses to the mainland was limited. In recent months Fujikawa has teed it up at the Omega Masters in Switzerland and the Casio Open in Japan, with the tournaments supplying airfare and other travel expenses for Tadd and Lori.

In all, Fujikawa has played eight tournaments as a pro, including three on the PGA Tour (where any kind of travel stipend is forbidden). His career earnings so far are $0, as he has yet to make a cut. The family is getting by with help from Tadd’s grandparents and something called the Tadd Fujikawa Dream Fund, which was started by a group of magnanimous Hawaiians and has grown to about $10,000. “It’s been hard to make ends meet,” Lori says, “but we’re used to having to sacrifice.”

It was by design that Tadd did not sign any endorsement deals in the first four months after turning pro. In formulating a marketing strategy, those around Fujikawa looked at Wie’s career blueprint and basically did the opposite. Says Tadd’s attorney, Kevin Bell, “There was certainly plenty of interest, but we didn’t want Tadd to be burdened by extra demands on his time or feel like he had the pressure of having to justify corporate contracts. The idea was to give him time to settle in.”

To no one’s surprise, Fujikawa has received a sponsor’s exemption to play in next month’s Sony Open, where he will be the center of attention, not to mention the tournament’s ad campaigns. (He’ll turn 17 on Jan. 8, two days before the tournament begins.) To cash in on all that publicity, Bell has been ramping up discussions with potential sponsors, which is how Fujikawa recently found himself in a sterile conference room atop a Honolulu high-rise. Eight other people crowded the table, including Bell, representatives of a marketing firm that he has retained and executives from go! Airlines, which services the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast. After the lengthy ritual exchange of business cards the air crackled with business jargon such as corporate alliances, cross-platform branding and activation initiatives. Tadd sat impassively at the head of the table, swallowed up by a large black leather chair. During the 45-minute meeting he asked no questions and was content to let the grown-ups do all the talking. Afterward he was asked if the experience was interesting or torturous. “A little of both,” he said.

Bell is waiting on a final proposal from go! and its parent company, Mesa Airlines, but is confident a deal will get done. Also being finalized are endorsement pacts with Aloha Petroleum, a watch company and what Bell says is a major food manufacturer. These contracts will give Fujikawa and his family some financial relief, but none of the deals will be blockbusters, and Tadd still has not signed with an equipment manufacturer. Bell is too polite to say it, but it’s clear that Wie has become so radioactive that the fallout is being felt by the next teen phenom to come along.

While the business aspects continue to get worked out, Fujikawa is focused primarily on improving his game, the foundation of which is a natural swing. He is blessed with athletic genes, and in fact is the only one in the family without a black belt. Ball striking is Fujikawa’s strength, perhaps a surprise for someone who is so small. “Tadd’s height would be an issue if he were a short hitter, but he’s not,” says Todd Anderson, Fujikawa’s swing coach since July. “He generates plenty of speed, and he compresses the ball nicely. I actually think his height can be an advantage, because he has fewer angles and moving parts to worry about, and it definitely helps him when it’s windy.”

PGA Tour journeyman Michael Boyd was paired with Fujikawa at this summer’s Reno-Tahoe Open and says, “I don’t think length is going to be a determining factor for him. He hit it as far as I did, and I think I’m plenty long enough to play out here.”

During his recent cameos in the big leagues, Fujikawa has struggled with the pace and severity of the greens, which have also exposed holes in his wedge play. Honolulu Country Club has graciously granted him access to its facilities, but the club doesn’t exactly replicate Tour conditions: At the range Fujikawa hits restricted-flight balls off artificial-turf mats, and the practice green is flat, slow and grainy. “Yes, it is a big adjustment every time I go to a tournament,” he says, “and I will admit that it has been a little frustrating to struggle like I have. But I’m learning so much every time I play, and that’s the important thing.”

With the help of everyone around him, Fujikawa has remained focused on the big picture. He talks about a five-year plan to make it to the Tour, which is not an unreasonable timeline. Sean O’Hair and Kevin Na both turned pro before they graduated from high school. Now in their early 20s, they have become successful pros.

PGA Tour bylaws prevent anyone under 18 from holding a Tour card, so in the coming year Fujikawa will cobble together a schedule that will likely feature detours in Europe, Asia and on the Nationwide tour while he continues to be a high school student. This semester he is on campus every morning for four classes: English, Japanese, marine science and piano. A special dispensation from the school allows him to take history and math as correspondence courses. “My whole life is school, golf and sleep,” Tadd says. “Oh, and eating, too.”

There is a sweetness and an innocence about Tadd that comes out in many ways, particularly in how he dotes on his elders, especially his grandmother Ellen Higuchi, with whom Tadd and his parents live. Ellen was 11 on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, and she lost the lower half of her right arm when antiaircraft artillery tore through her home. (Her older brother was killed by shrapnel.)

A direct link to Pearl Harbor is only one indication of how deep Fujikawa’s roots are in the community. It surely says something that months ago he received his sponsor’s exemption to the Sony Open, while Wie still has not been invited even though she has a lucrative endorsement deal with the title sponsor. “The difference between Tadd and Michelle is that people here actually like him,” says one Sony executive, who requested anonymity. “They want him to succeed because he’s one of us.”

A recent meal at a locals’ restaurant ended with the owner picking up the check, telling Tadd it was because he has “the Aloha spirit.” He’ll need that kind of good vibe at the Sony, during what is sure to be a pressure-packed week for a teenager still finding his way as a pro. Then again, Fujikawa has such an endless supply of youthful exuberance that it’s hard to imagine him not having a great time, regardless of his scores. When he looks ahead to the Sony, he is most excited not about all the autographs he will sign or the TV interviews or a chance to get his hands on a chunk of the $5 million purse. What he is really fantasizing about is what awaits at the driving range. Says Tadd, “When I hit balls now, some are yellow, some are blue, some have stripes, some don’t. You go to the range at a Tour event, and the balls are beautiful. They have bag after bag of every brand, and they are all perfectly white. Oh, my gawd! It’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven!”

Once again, he’ll feel like the luckiest guy in the world.