PGA’s Amazing History At Waialae

Kaua‘i native David Ishii watches his final putt to win the 1990 Hawaiian Open, then watches fans scramble for the winning ball he’d tossed

The winner’s share at this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii will be right around $1 million. That’s a far cry from the $2,000 the legendary Cary Middlecoff took home way back in 1948 when he won the professional predecessor of Oahu’s premier golf event.

Yes, PGA golf in Hawaii is big business these days, and the tour’s first full-field tournament of the 2011 season has quite a history at Waialae Country Club.

If you’re like most local sports fans, you probably have your favorite moments. I’ll admit I simply like the beauty of the course and walking practically side-by-side with some of the biggest names on the links. I’ve interviewed Corey Pavin and Craig Stadler and Tom Kite and many other outstanding players over the years. I recall spending several precious minutes with legendary baseball announcer Vin Scully as he prepared to announce the Hawaiian Open more than two decades ago.

Scully told me that the best golf ending he ever saw was Isao Aoki’s incredible victory at Waialae in 1983 – when the Japanese pro holed an eagle from the fairway on the 72nd hole to win the title in stunning fashion. Ironically, as many tournaments as Aoki won in his brilliant career, that was his only victory in a PGA Tour event.

I saw Kaua’i native David Ishii win one for local fans when he took home the title in 1990 – the first Hawaiian-born player to win a PGA tour event since the legendary Ted Makalena.

I also remember the local highlights of this past decade: watching teenager Michelle Wie of Punahou as she impressed even the great Ernie Els in 2004, then the thrill of seeing 16-year-old amateur Tadd Fujikawa of Moanalua become the youngest player to make the cut in 50 years when he sank an eagle putt on the 36th hole in the 2006 SONY.

I remember the emotional win of former Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, who claimed the SONY prize in 2000. Azinger, who had battled and beaten the deadly cancer lymphoma, and who delivered the eulogy for best friend Payne Stewart after his tragic plane crash just months before, won his first PGA event in seven years when he took home Waialae’s top prize.

Without a doubt, you truly get a taste of golf’s historic past when you look at the leaderboard over the last four and a half decades. Ten years ago, in 2001, Brad Faxon won the SONY Open with a score of 20-under par, downing Tom Lehman by four strokes and pulling away on Sunday with a final round of 5-under par 65.

Kaua‘i native David Ishii watches his final putt to win the 1990 Hawaiian Open, then watches fans scramble for the winning ball he’d tossed

Twenty years ago, in 1991, Lanny Wadkins beat John Cook by that same four-shot margin, and also shot a final round of 65, to win the United Hawaiian Open title with an impressive total of 18-under par. That was the year yellow ribbons were everywhere, as the first Gulf War had just started.

In 1981, Hale Irwin had a six-shot win over Don January, cruising to victory when he fashioned an impressive third-round total of 8-under par 62 in his Saturday round. And way back in 1971, former University of Oregon stand-out Tom Shaw edged out Miller Barber to win the Hawaiian Open championship by a single stroke.

Other notable winners of this premier event have included some of the biggest names in golf history: Lee Trevino in 1968, Jack Nicklaus in 1974, Ben Crenshaw in 1976, Mark O’Meara in 1985, Corey Pavin back-to-back in 1986 and 1987, Ernie Els back-to-back in 2003 and 2004, and Vijay Singh in 2005.

Last year, Ryan Palmer took home the $990,000 first prize with a one-shot win over Robert Allenby.

By the time you read this, a new Sony Open champion will have been crowned, and another thrilling chapter will have been written at Waialae.

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