Nothing has come easily to Tadd Fujikawa.
He started the year by going through a Monday qualifier to get in the Sony Open, where he shot a 62 in the third round to give himself a chance at becoming the PGA Tour’s youngest winner. He ends the year by making his first foray into Q-School, where he must get through 252 holes over three stages to earn his card.
Along the way, Fujikawa achieved two milestones that should help him keep it all in perspective.
He got his driver’s license in April. Two months later, he graduated from Moanalua High School in Honolulu.
“It was nice to be done with that,” he said.
Diploma in hand, now comes his first big test.
Some might equate Q-School with his first job interview, although Fujikawa is not the typical qualifier. It has been more than two years and two dozen tournaments since the 18-year-old turned pro.
Part of him is in a rush to get to where he wants to go. Another part of him knows the journey is just beginning.
“It’s really hard to say if I am where I expected myself to be,” Fujikawa said after arriving at St. Johns Golf & Country Club in St. Augustine, Fla., where his 72-hole exam starts Wednesday against a field of 70 players. “I’m very pleased with what I’ve done thus far. But I also wish I could have done more.”
Fujikawa is among more than 900 players who have signed up for the first stage of Q-School, which will be played out over the next two weeks at 13 sites. That group includes the son of Jack Nicklaus (Gary Nicklaus), the grandson of Arnold Palmer (Sam Saunders) and Rickie Fowler, who tied for seventh last week in Las Vegas in his first PGA Tour start as a pro.
For a teenager fresh out of high school, the pressure to perform is nothing new.
At only 5-foot-1, Fujikawa got his first taste of the big-time when he was 15 and competed at Winged Foot in 2006 as the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Open. Six months later, he became the youngest player in 50 years to make the cut on the PGA Tour when he shot 66 in the second round of the Sony Open.
The kid knows all about disappointment, too.
He still had two years left in high school when he turned pro in the summer of 2007. Over the next year, he missed the cut 10 straight times on four tours before he finally made it to the weekend of a sanctioned tournament when he tied for 48th in Japan. Fujikawa didn’t earn his first PGA Tour check until this year at the Sony Open.
The biggest test now is tempering expectations.
Fujikawa made three out of four cuts on the PGA Tour this year. He tied for 15th on the Nationwide Tour, then flew to Japan and tied for 31st without having time to play a practice round.
Odds are stacked against anyone making it through all three stages of Q-School. Of more than 1,200 players who signed up last year, only eight made it through three stages, the youngest of which was 24-year-old Kansas grad Gary Woodland.
For Fujikawa, consider this his freshman year in college.
“Basically what I told him was, ‘We’re not going to evaluate you until you’re 21 or 22,’ ” said Todd Anderson, the Sea Island swing coach who has been working with Fujikawa the last few years. “What I’ve tried to stay away from is, ‘You’ve got to be here by this time.’ I’ve told him to figure out what other players are doing and see how you stack up. Have fun and see how good you can get.
“He’s really hard on himself. He has high expectations. And the last thing I want to do is put more on him.”
Anderson first met Fujikawa during a practice round at Winged Foot, and then at Sea Island after Fujikawa missed the cut at a junior event. His mother, Lori, asked Anderson if he would mind looking at her son’s swing. That’s when Anderson realized Fujikawa had spent years trying to figure out golf on his own and doing a pretty good job of it. They worked until dark that day.
“You can’t ask for a better student,” Anderson said. “He’s very open, very receptive and very patient for a kid that age.”
Fujikawa already has gone through an extreme of emotions this year.
He created a frenzy at Waialae in January by making nine birdies in his round of 62 that left him two shots out of the lead going into the final round of the Sony Open, where he shot 73 on the last day and tied for 32nd.
Two weeks later, he sat in a courtroom as his father pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree drug trafficking. Derrick Fujikawa, who said that he hid his addiction from his family for years, received a 10-year sentence in August. The judge set a one-year minimum sentence because of the father’s rehabilitation since the arrest.
“He’s doing a lot better with his life, and I’m real happy for him,” Fujikawa said. “I’m not worried about that anymore.”
His main concern at the moment is being among the 20 or so players who advance from the first stage. Fujikawa has revamped his swing in hopes of more consistent ball flight. He feels as though his game is close.
Being close, though, is all relative.
“Of course, I always want to do well,” Fujikawa said. “But right now is not as important as two or three years down the road.”