News & Opinion

Island vibe offers Tour a warm opening

In the ultimate land of excess, only the PGA Tour could justifiably claim to hosting three season openers. You’ve got that thing they played back in October to kick off the wraparound schedule, the annual trip to Hawaii at the start of the calendar year, and whenever Tiger Woods decides to tee it up.

From a pragmatic standpoint, the Maui-Honolulu combo, which begins today (tee times), still makes the most sense. As a majority of the golf universe gears up for three months of harsh weather, the Tour’s two weeks in the Pacific offer a chilling reminder that pro golf isn’t high on low-rent districts or subfreezing temperatures.

Some might tune in for the diversion, a respite from snow shovels and salt trucks. Other viewers might take exception to the constant references to “paradise” and the scenic visuals, especially from Kapalua, where a posh resort was built on dramatic terrain along Maui’s northwest coast. Having made the journey numerous times back in the day to cover both tournaments for Golf World, I empathize with these fair-weather foes.

Perhaps that makes me a shameless hypocrite. It definitely makes me a lucky one.

In all of my years as a sportswriter, no event treated the media to a greater level of extravagance than the folks at Kapalua. Lavish gifts would be left in the hotel room every day, usually while we were out playing a free round on one of the resort’s other courses. And because it’s a winners-only tournament with a limited field, the Tour pros don’t tee off until around noon. That meant an hour or so by the pool, at least until the Internet intervened on a scribe’s job description.

From the gift certificates handed out by former title sponsor Mercedes to the nightly social functions, Kapalua’s hospitality was generous to the point of eliciting guilt, which reminds me of a line from longtime friend Mike Purkey, a fellow Morning Read contributor: “Sportswriters are underpaid and over-privileged.” I hit balls on the range next to Mick Fleetwood, who was more adept with drumsticks than a 7-iron, played Trivial Pursuit with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and hung out for a couple of hours with Ernie Els, one of the most likable guys I’ve ever met.

The following week wasn’t nearly as glamorous, but I enjoyed the urban life of Honolulu as much as the spoils and spaciousness of Kapalua. As underrated Tour venues go, Waialae Country Club is near the top of my list, very easy to walk and see golf whether you’re inside or outside of the ropes.

Justin Thomas (27 under in 2017) leads the list in recent years of those who have torched the place. With Waialae playing at a shade over 7,000 yards, one can see how the Tour eventually might look elsewhere to stage the year’s first full-field gathering.

Camp Ponte Vedra would be wise to leave well enough alone. Waialae has hosted this event since 1965. Sony has served as the title sponsor for 21 years, meaning both are among the Tour’s most loyal clients.

It’s a nice little tournament and an obvious source of civic pride, a trait made abundantly clear when local prodigy Michelle Wie received four consecutive exemptions to the Sony Open in the mid-2000s.

Wie didn’t make a cut, but she moved the needle in a faraway land where needle-moving generally is reserved for seismometers. I played nine holes with a 13-year-old Wie in early 2003, holding my own but losing to her by a couple of shots. No self-respecting adult male can ask for strokes against an eighth-grade girl.

I remember weaving through traffic one morning en route to Waialae, driving like a typical mainlander from the Northeast, only to get pulled over maybe a mile from the club. The cop asked me for a license and registration, then informed me that people “over here” don’t drive like complete knuckleheads.

This knucklehead is over here to cover the golf tournament, I explained, at which point the officer broke out a wide smile. “You came all the way from Connecticut to cover the Sony Open? Follow me!” It remains the only police escort I’ve ever received to somewhere other than the local precinct.

Hawaiians go about life a bit differently than many of us. They take their time, laugh a lot, cherish the simple pleasures and revel in the otherworldly beauty of the islands they call home. It’s a great place to do just about anything but scrape the ice off your windshield. If you’re into that kind of thing.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com