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Constrasting fortunes for teens in Hawaii

Not many paid attention to Tadd Fujikawa when he showed up at the Sony Open.

He wasn't the teenager from Hawaii everyone came to see. And at only 5-foot-1, it was a chore just to find him.

For the last four years, any mention of "teenager" and "Hawaii" immediately brought images of Michelle Wie, a 6-foot senior in high school who has been competing against the pros since she was 12 and joined them a week before she turned 16. She is tall and graceful, a marketing dream, the richest female in golf and already famous around the world.

She goes to prestigious Punahou School, and last month was accepted to Stanford.

Fujikawa, who turned 16 on Monday, is short and stocky. He goes to public school and doesn't belong to a country club. Until this week, he was known as the youngest U.S. Open qualifier since 1941, and he shot 81-77 at Winged Foot.

Wie was given a sponsor's exemption for the fourth straight year here and missed the cut, this time by 14 shots.

Fujikawa earned his way into the Sony Open by shooting a 67 to capture the lone amateur spot at the Aloha Section PGA qualifying.

He is everything that Wie is not, starting with the fact that he played on the weekend at Waialae. He became the youngest player in 50 years to make the cut on the PGA Tour, and he went into the final round Sunday tied for eighth.

The magical ride ended quickly when he hit into the water and made double bogey on the third hole and dropped to the middle of the pack. You couldn't tell by the cheers, which followed him around the course until the end, when he made birdie for a 2-over 72. He tied for 20th among the 73 players who made the cut.

Had he been a pro, the finish would have been worth about $56,000.

"Everybody out here cheering me on and supporting me, it's the best feeling in the world," Fujikawa said. "I never imagined myself doing this, especially at this age."

He captivated Oahu during his amazing week at Waialae Country Club, drawing the largest galleries at the Sony Open because of his play, not just his potential.

"There's not a player in this field who isn't rooting for this kid," fellow competitor Harrison Frazar said as he walked toward the 17th green on Saturday, having stood on the tee to watch Fujikawa escape from the trees and hit a shot into 20 feet on the 16th.

A birdie-par-eagle finish on Friday gave Fujikawa a 4-under 66 to make the cut by three shots. His reaction to the eagle putt will be among the highlights in golf the rest of the year, how he dropped his putter and raised his arms, then punched the air with an uppercut.

Then came the encore.

He played so well Saturday that he was tied for fourth early in the third round, and for those waiting for him to wake up from this dream, he must be a sound sleeper. He shot another 66 -- only the 54-hole leader, Charles Howell III, had a better score in the third round -- and was tied for eighth going into the final round.

"I think that's the story this week," said Paul Goydos, who was two shots off the lead starting Sunday's final round. "That's just one of the great accomplishments. You would expect him to say, 'Hey, I've accomplished something' and lay down. And this kid obviously didn't do that."

Lay down?

Obviously, Goydos doesn't know much about this kid.

He was a fighter from the time he was born -- 3 1/2 months early, so small that he weighed only 1 pound, 15 ounces and could fit into his grandfather's palm.

"They said he only had a 50 percent chance to live," said his mother, Lori Fujikawa, as she walked the fairways of Waialae, hanging back some 250 yards. "There was no reason for me to go into labor so early. I guess he wanted to come out and see the world."

They made it through a series of surgeries the first year, one to reconnect his intestines. They worried about a mental disability because of the premature birth. He continued to amaze them, and they didn't bother having another child.

"We were blessed," she said. "So we decided to stick with one blessed child."

She does clerical work in an auto body shop. Her husband is a project manager for a contractor. Lori Fujikawa works until school gets out at Moanalua High, picks up her son and takes him to various golf courses, where he plays until dark.

Wie has been working with David Leadbetter's stable of swing coaches since junior high, and it wasn't long before she added a nutritionist and a sports psychologist. As a pro, she had three agents from the William Morris Agency at the Sony Open.

Fujikawa took his first lesson from a PGA teaching pro when he was 12, then decided last fall to figure out the rest on his own.

One similarity is the size of the crowds at the Sony Open.

The Hawaii fans love their locals, and once Wie badly missed the cut, they flocked to Fujikawa and now can't leave his side. The walkway between the ninth green and the 10th tee is tight, and the traffic looked like a shopping mall the day after Thanksgiving.

After the kid made a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 11, he walked through an 80-yard corridor to the next tee, the metal railings packed with fans reaching out their hands. Fujikawa, the little kid with a big smile, touched them all.

"I'm not sure how many people were out there," he said. "But I'm pretty sure this is the biggest crowd I've ever seen in my life."

And he's giving them quite a show.

January 16, 2007


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