FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tadd Fujikawa spent his 17th birthday at the Sony Open Junior Skills Challenge yesterday, but also got to enjoy some birthday cake.
Fujikawa gets chance to kid around
Age gaps didn't mean a whole lot at the Sony Open's Pro Junior Skills Challenge yesterday. PGA Tour veterans got to act like kids, and some supposed juniors displayed poise beyond their years playing alongside the seasoned guys.
Then again, between some of the playing partners -- Moanalua High's Tadd Fujikawa and Punahou's Alex Ma'ila Ching -- there was no age gap to begin with.
Five teams of Hawaii State Junior Golf Association youths teamed with professionals pitched, blasted and putted their way to good-natured glory in three events yesterday.
The pros are a day away from the real challenge at Waialae Country Club tomorrow, but it didn't matter -- the youngest player among the 10 put on the best display.
Baldwin High freshman Cassy Isagawa posted the best opening trick shot and closed with an impressive fringe putt from about 50 feet to boost her team -- dubbed "Team One" -- to victory in her first appearance in the annual event.
The events were judged based on distance to the cup from the three challenge sites: a distant pitch to the green over a signpost, a mid-range bunker shot and a lengthy putt -- with each participant given two balls at each post.
Isagawa's collected play impressed her partner, five-time participant Jerry Kelly. Moments after Kelly started things off with a smooth shot to within a few feet of the cup, Isagawa trumped her teammate by coming within 2 feet, 7 inches of the hole. Nobody else came close.
"Well, I had Michelle Wie the first year, and I think Cassy steps up even more than her. So, look out Michelle," said Kelly, the 2002 Sony Open champion, with a laugh.
Isagawa made sure to thank the event volunteers, and Kelly for keeping things lighthearted.
"It was nerve-wracking at first because I was one of the first people to go out to hit," said Isagawa, 14. "But, after a while you get more comfortable with who you're around with. They're joking around and stuff like that so it makes me feel comfortable."
Kelly received $3,000 as the winning team's professional, while Isagawa got gift certificates as an amateur. The HSJGA was given $10,000, half of the purse.
The pros did their best to keep the atmosphere light as several dozen HSJGA members looked on and cheered at the Waialae 18th green. Most of the mirth came from Kelly and Jim Furyk, who endlessly ribbed each other throughout the event.
"As long as we beat the Jerry Kelly team, we'll be all right," Furyk said to the crowd beforehand, and further barbs ensued from there.
Furyk didn't get his wish, but the first-time participant had a good time staying loose with the juniors, especially his partner Kristina Merkle, a Moanalua High junior.
"It was fun to really kind of hang out with the kids, and Jerry's feisty as it is," Furyk said afterward. "Him and my partner, Kristina, were having a little go. I had to protect my partner a little bit."
Merkle got a kick out of it.
"I always wanted to come out here and have fun, challenge myself against the pros," she said. "It was really fun. Jerry Kelly's a great guy, and Jim Furyk too. Them going back and forth -- how can you not stop laughing."
The other teams were two-time PGA Comeback Player of the Year Steve Stricker with Punahou's Bradley Shigezawa, and Castle High graduate Dean Wilson with Kamehameha's T.J. Kua.
Wilson and Kua finished in second place, with the 2007 HSJGA state champion carrying the all-local team for stretches of the challenge.
When it came time for Fujikawa's opening trick shot -- involving a pitch over a 5-foot high sign -- the diminutive pro complained, "The board's a little high for me."
But it also happened to be Fujikawa's 17th birthday, so he was serenaded to the birthday song on the green, the signature site of his breakout performance at the 2007 Sony. This time around, there were less obligatory fist-pumps and more cake.
"I really enjoyed it, playing with people my own age," Fujikawa said. "It was nice to see my friends again, and we had a lot of fun."