JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kauai's Casey Watabu said the nervousness of playing at Augusta National for the first time is gone after his practice round alongside Hawaii's Dean Wilson and former Masters champ Mike Weir. CLICK FOR LARGE
Watabu braves the crowds
Casey Watabu's hopes are high in Georgia
Casey Watabu received some insider information during his two practice rounds for tomorrow's Masters.
On Monday, he played with three-time champion Gary Player, who let him know what to look for at the famed Augusta National course. And yesterday, his lesson continued as he practiced with fellow island boy Dean Wilson and 2003 Master's champion Mike Weir.
The extra schooling should come in handy.
"Getting to practice with these past champions can only help me," the Kauai resident said yesterday. "They know where you want to put the ball and where not to. My goal is to hit fairways and greens, and two-putt. If I position the ball right I should be OK."
Watabu learned yesterday afternoon that he will be paired with past Masters champion Tom Watson and 2007 Turtle Bay winner Fred Funk the first two days. He has an early morning tee-time tomorrow and a late afternoon round scheduled for Friday.
Playing two practice rounds in front of thousands of patrons yesterday and Monday has him prepared for the 36 holes ahead. He hopes to survive the cut and play this weekend, something he knows will be difficult to do.
"The greens are so fast already and they are supposed to be even faster the next few days," Watabu said. "If you are above the hole, all you have to do is touch the ball and it will roll forever. The key is getting the putt on line and hope it hits the hole."
Watabu qualified for the Masters by winning the U.S. Men's Amateur Public Links Championship last summer in Washington.
AUGUSTA, Ga. » Casey Watabu knew he wasn't in Hawaii anymore during his practice round early Monday morning.
Being paired with Gary Player, who is celebrating his 50th Masters appearance, had Watabu already excited. But when realizing he was in behind Tiger Woods, and seeing firsthand the masses following the biggest name in golf, he had to wipe his hands on his pants several times to keep the club from flying after his ball.
"It took him awhile to get used to the crowds," Casey's father, Victor, said as he and his wife, Iris, watched yesterday's practice session that included fellow local boy Dean Wilson. "There were thousands of people on every fairway and green. The good thing is, he knows what to expect now."
Since finishing third at the Hawaii state amateur nearly a month ago, Watabu and his entourage -- that includes mom and dad, mom's father, Nobu Sakamoto, Mid-Pacific Country Club's Norman Asao, who is serving as chef, and Nevada teammate and caddie, John Cassidy -- have become regular residents of Georgia.
Prior to this week's two practice rounds, Watabu had six sessions on the Augusta National Golf Club course. But on those tours of the nearly 7,500-yard long course, there weren't any troubling patrons to get in the way. Such was not the case Monday or yesterday, where Watabu was paired with Wilson, whose own family was negotiating the crowded fairways, and 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir.
Nearly 60,000 people were on the grounds and many were curious to know just who this young man from Kauai was and how he landed a spot in the most coveted field in professional golf.
Watabu punched his ticket by winning the U.S. Men's Amateur Public Links Championship last summer in Washington. His mom is a regular on the amateur byways, but for some reason, she didn't go last summer until the final round.
"He called me the night before and said he needed a hug from his mom," Iris Watabu said yesterday.
"We grabbed our suitcases, caught the first plane we could and made it just in time to see the back nine. We were so excited about this wonderful opportunity.
"I've been walking for months just to get ready to follow him here. In the practice rounds leading up to this week, they let us walk with him inside the ropes. I have pictures standing on the bridge at the 12th hole of Amen Corner. It's been a wonderful few weeks."
Watabu has one more practice session today before teeing it up for real tomorrow. He goes off at 3:28 a.m. (Hawaii time) and is paired with the legendary Tom Watson and Turtle Bay Championship winner Fred Funk. His goal in the opening two rounds is to try to par every hole. If he can do that, he figures he'll make the cut and play on during the weekend.
"It's been so exciting to see all these great golfers up close," Watabu said.
"If I didn't know what I wanted to do in my life, I do now. This is where I want to be -- inside the ropes. Everybody has been so nice and helpful here.
"I didn't really feel that nervous until Monday. Playing with Gary Player was an honor. I didn't even know he had played in so many Masters before. He was very helpful, telling me where I wanted to be and not to be. You have to position your ball on this golf course, or you'll get into a lot of trouble."
It didn't hurt being paired with Weir and Wilson as well. Weir left the Hawaii twosome after the front nine yesterday, but Wilson and Watabu figured they needed as many practice hours as they could get, so they played on through the back nine.
Wilson imparted some wisdom of his own, making Watabu that much more relaxed as he prepares for the biggest golf tournament of his life. As he said, it's a dream come true, but it's even more than that for all his fans back on Kauai.
"Everybody is so excited for him back home," Iris Watabu said.
"We've received so much love and support. I really think there are more people out here right now than all who live on Kauai. They are so excited about this opportunity for Casey. So are we."
Watabu did a brief interview with a reporter from Japan, who wanted to know why Watabu chose golf over baseball. Watabu's grandfather, Brown Watabu, played baseball for the Kintetsu Pearls in Japan, but when he was 12, Casey decided golf was his career, not baseball.
"I'm 5-6 and weigh maybe 150 pounds, that's not big enough for baseball," Casey Watabu said. "My whole family played baseball, but they supported my decision. I'm going to play amateur golf the rest of the summer, before trying out for Q-school this October. I just want to make sure I'm ready before turning pro."
Watabu's most nervous moment came at the 16th on Monday. He didn't know about the tradition of trying to skip a golf ball across the pond to the 16th green. Playing in only the second practice group, he felt the pressure of trying the trick shot.
He did a better job yesterday with Wilson.
"Playing with Dean and Mike Weir was big for me," Watabu said.
"He's excited about this opportunity for me. Dean shows the way for everybody in Hawaii. If I can't make it on the Tour right away, playing in Japan, like Dean did, is also an option for me.
"I can't wait until Thursday. I'm glad I got the opportunity to play in front of so many people already.
"The nervousness is gone now. If you stay focused on what you're supposed to do, you won't even notice they are there. My goal is to be the low amateur. If I make the cut, I have a chance to accomplish that."