Notes: Plenty of fresh faces at Sony Open

Tony Finau during the 2007 Scandinavian Masters. Finau has Monday-qualified for this week's Sony Open in Hawaii.

Tony Finau during the 2007 Scandinavian Masters. Finau has Monday-qualified for this week's Sony Open in Hawaii.

HONOLULU – Respecting a stage to which he is new, Tony Finau stepped gingerly around the practice range at Waialae Country Club. He was looking for a spot to hit balls, but being without PGA Tour membership rights and having so little history at this level, Finau rightfully stayed back.

Golf is one of the last bastions of protocol.

Ah, but if Finau only realized he actually fits in perfectly this week, because an annual attraction to the Sony Open is the number of unknown players who tee it up.

Even a marquee veteran such as Ernie Els appreciates the flavor at work just a few miles from Waikiki Beach.

“It’s a great event to get your feet wet,” Els said. “At this event, the new guys show their faces.”

Then the Big Easy smiled and added, “but when I walk on the practice green, I (sometimes) think I’m on a different tour.”

Finau might rank as an unheralded name to the vast majority of golf fans, but he does possess a story of great intrigue. He and his younger brother, Gipper, gained attention for turning professional as young teenagers, though neither has made much of an impact quite yet.

Who knows? This week might be the turning point that Tony, 21, has been looking for. He shot 67 to get through a Monday qualifier, so the tall and lanky man with heralded long-driving talents will tee it up for the third time in a PGA Tour tournament.

Heck, he hadn’t even found a spot to hit balls on the range when the week paid off. That’s because he ran into Callaway tour rep Barry Lyda, who congratulated Finau and offered company assistance. Next thing you knew, Finau was set up with Callaway balls, extra-large gloves and even some hats.

Oh, and Lyda went the extra distance and fixed the zipper on Finau’s tour-style golf bag.

“It’s exciting,” Finau said. “I’m thrilled to be here.”

Finau was raised in Utah, but he has plenty of relatives on Oahu, so that’s where he’s settled in during the winter. He played in the Hawaii State Open right before Christmas, then went home for a few weeks before returning to Oahu right after the first of the year.

He and Gipper, 20, play out of the Turtle Bay Resort on the other side of the island, and barely had Tony settled into the warm, tropical air when he shot 64 at Sunday’s pre-qualifier and 67 in Monday’s qualifier.

But if he feels a bit in awe of the PGA Tour scene here at Waialae, he shouldn’t. That’s because the field roster is dotted with new faces, so as fans stood by the putting green fence, the conversations were comical. They thought Finau might have been Joseph Bramlett or maybe Jhonattan Vegas, then pointed to Fabian Gomez and asked, “Who is that?” right before scratching their heads when Joe Affrunti, Bobby Gates, Kevin Kisner and Brendan Steele walked by.

Els gets a kick out of it, actually, and remembered a few years ago when he played a round alongside Matt Bettencourt, someone whom he had never met.

“It’s nice to kind of follow their years (after that),” Els said.

Not long after speaking those words, Els was off in one direction, so from the clubhouse to the course, a short walk took us in behind the ninth hole. That’s where a very familiar sight was at work, Hall of Famer Vijay Singh – soon to be 48 – shaking off the rust in preparation for his 19th PGA Tour season.

Yet what jumped out at you while watching Singh? The same thing that comes to mind whenever you visit this tournament, because playing alongside Singh was a little left-hander who had a golf bag with a pop-up stand. David Saka is 18, a freshman member of the University of Hawaii golf team, and he’s in the field via an exemption that goes to the winner of what is called the Governor’s Cup, a select tournament for leading amateur players in Hawaii.

Perhaps being 18 and an amateur and a new face to the PGA Tour scene, Saka is looking around wondering just who are these guys. If so, he should not feel alone.

Els and Singh are probably feeling similarly.

•••

Tadd Fujikawa won the Hawaii State Open the week before Christmas, a $10,000 prize that was a real thrill for the 19-year-old. Unfortunately, things didn’t go so positively Monday, because he finished three shots out of a playoff in a qualifier for this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii.

“I had a rough day,” Fujikawa said of his round of 71.

He’s a native son, an inspirational story, and it’s still a refreshing memory to drift back to 2007, when he made a spirited run here as an amateur. Fujikawa’s third-round 62 put him in contention, though he closed with a 72 to finish T-20.

It was a natural avenue for Fujikawa to write for a sponsor exemption, though it wasn’t granted.

“It’s a very special event in my heart, and I’m a little disappointed. But I still had the chance to qualify, which is nice,” Fujikawa said, taking the diplomatic route because it’s a shame he isn’t here.

Would he have brought far more excitement to this year’s Sony Open than a story that is more stale than 20-day-old bread, John Daly? Absolutely he would have, but for some reason Daly continues to get free passes at the expense of players who truly deserve the chances.

Inexplicable, especially given this reality: In those years when Daly was fully exempt on the PGA Tour (1992-2006), he played at Waialae CC just five times. Yet this year he received his fourth sponsor exemption in five years.

In weeks to come, Daly will avoid more Monday qualifiers and get more sponsor exemptions. Nauseating, actually, but reportedly he sells tickets and that justifies it. Maybe, maybe not. As for Fujikawa, he’s still on Oahu for a few more weeks, waiting for the winter cold to leave the southeastern part of the mainland so he can return to Sea Island, Ga., and work on his 2011 game.

The young man will switch over and play the Hooters Tour this season, after having played well on the eGolf Tour, which is based in North Carolina.

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