Notes: Carter, Fujikawa relish chance to compete

Jim Carter

Jim Carter

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HONOLULU – Against a backdrop of players who talk of needing time off and don’t seem overly excited about making long trips for a chance to play for millions of dollars, Jim Carter had no problem flying from Arizona to Hawaii just to roll the dice and play 18 holes without a penny in the purse.

“Hey, it’s Hawaii. Not a bad place to be,” Carter said.

No, it’s not. But still, Carter could have been excused had he not made the long flight. After all, as the sixth-place finisher in last fall’s Champions Tour Q-School, he’ll be teeing it up soon enough against guys his own age. The only thing is, his first tournament on that circuit won’t be until the Feb. 10-12 Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., “and with not a lot going on at home, I figured I’d try and get in some PGA tournaments.”

Having turned 50 on June 24, Carter is in transition, putting behind him a 15-year PGA Tour career that produced one victory and $4.7 million in earnings. That PGA Tour landscape is vastly different than what it looked like in his rookie year, 1987, but what still exists is a fundamental philosophy that the best players embrace: All they want is a chance to compete.

That is what ushered Carter into the Monday qualifier against a field that included dozens of players half his age. Carter shot 68 to earn one of the four spots, and thus he’s ready for his 459th PGA Tour tournament and 14th Sony Open.

“It’s pretty cool, a lot of fun, because I haven’t done this in 25 years,” Carter said of the successful Monday qualifier. “It’s getting tough to get in these tournaments, so I’m very happy.”

Mark Wilson can appreciate Carter’s commitment. He’s the defending champion here and a player who earned more than $3.1 million last year, but it was only eight years ago when Wilson wasn’t exempt onto the PGA Tour. With a passion to play and a desire to take on any challenge, Wilson entered the Monday qualifier for the Sony Open. His wife, Amy, caddied for him that day and Wilson lost in a playoff to Dave Eichelberger, but it’s the sort of memory that helps him keep today’s success in perspective.

• • •

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Tadd Fujikawa during the 2009 Sony Open.

Local hero

The Monday qualifier didn’t end as pleasantly for Tadd Fujikawa as it did for Carter, so after shooting 69 to miss a playoff by one stroke, the young man from Honolulu decided to stay up late.

“I figured I could sleep in Tuesday morning,” he said.

He was doing a pretty good job of until the phone rang at 10:30, though the voice at the other end had great news. Fujikawa, who just turned 21 last Sunday, had been granted a sponsor exemption.

“It was a wonderful wake-up call,” he said.

A few years have slipped away since Fujikawa was a 15-year-old qualifier into the U.S. Open or an 18-year-old who shot 62 in the third round of the Sony Open. His entrance into the pro golf world hasn’t been easy, Fujikawa having toiled on a few minitours while moving to Sea Island, Ga., but his charming personality and heartwarming story remain intact.

When he got the call Tuesday morning, Fujikawa rushed out to Waialae Country Club for a practice round, and he was there again Wednesday, a wide smile on his face.

• • •

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Steve Stricker reacts to winning the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course on Jan. 9, 2012 in Kapalua, Hawaii.

Under the radar?

Crazy, given that he’s ranked fifth in the world and is America’s best player, according to the world order. Even crazier, because he’s won eight times in his last 50 PGA Tour tournaments, dating to the 2009 Colonial. But there’s a sentiment that Steve Stricker is under-appreciated.

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Stricker said, moments after having won Monday at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Kapalua Resort on Maui.

Consistent with his personality, he wasn’t about to hype up any sort of debate. He prefers to move along in a style that keeps him focused on the job at hand.

“I’m happy with what I do,” Stricker said.

Which is what?

“Our deal is to keep doing what we do, every day,” said Stricker’s caddie, Jimmy Johnson. “It’s our mantra. Keep chopping wood and a tree will fall down, eventually.”

Or, in Stricker’s case, eight massive trees, because while the top 10s (26 since the start of 2009) and consecutive cuts made (he leads the tour with 42, more than double the next player on the list) are a testament to Stricker’s consistency, victories are what separate great players from good players, so here’s a morsel to consider: Since 2009, Stricker has eight victories; the next three Americans in the world order – Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson and Matt Kuchar – have eight combined in that time.

• • •

Numbers don’t lie

There was no mystery to Stricker’s success at the Plantation Course. He was 6 under on the front, a whopping 17 under on the back. More of a tribute to his ability to shine in crunch time, Stricker was immense over the closing holes, making 11 birdies and an eagle on holes 15-18.

Though it’s not the way he would have drawn it up, Stricker said he’s not surprised.

“Over the years, I’ve kind of treaded water on the front and then I’ve usually played pretty well on the back,” he said.

Martin Laird, who finished second, just three behind, was only 11 under on the back, while Webb Simpson and Jonathan Byrd, both of whom tied for third, were just 8 under on the inward nine.

• • •

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Troy Merritt gets hugs from his family after winning the Kodak Challenge.

How quickly things change

Two years ago, Troy Merritt was playing in his first PGA Tour tournament, the Sony Open, having been medalist at Q-School five weeks earlier. When he shot 65 in his first round, he created a bit of a buzz, and he went on to finish T-20.

Fast forward two years and Merritt was again in Honolulu, only this time he was involved in a Monday qualifier to get into this week’s Sony Open.

He shot 72 and missed a playoff by four.

The qualifiers were Nicholas Mason, Doug Labelle, Alex Aragon and Carter, but what speaks volumes to the enormous depth that exists in the game now are the notable names who made the trip to Hawaii for an 18-hole qualifier. PGA Tour winners Tim Petrovic (69), Jason Gore (70), Frank Lickliter (72) and Ted Purdy (74) failed to make it. So, too, did former U.S. Open champion Scott Simpson (74).

• • •

Breaking down the Sony field

There are 26 rookies on the PGA Tour this season, and all but two of them are teeing it up here . . . . . Of the 26 rookies, eight will be playing in their first PGA Tour tournament at the Sony: Harris English, John Huh, Richard Lee, Jonas Blixt, Scott Brown, Miguel Angel Carballo, Gary Christian, J.J. Killeen, and Ted Potter Jr. . . . The field includes two 16-year-olds – Miguel Tabuena of the Philippines and John Oda of Moanalua High School in Honolulu – and 52-year-old Corey Pavin, who’ll make his 26th start in this tournament.

• • •

Mr. Maui

For all the talk of players who skipped the season-opener at the Plantation Course, here’s a round of applause for someone who has traversed those massive hills perhaps more than anyone on the PGA Tour. Paul Tesori was there this year with Webb Simpson, the fifth different winner with whom he’s gone to Maui. Tesori has also worked the Plantation Course alongside Vijay Singh, Jerry Kelly, Chris Couch, and Sean O’Hair.

• • •

New job for old hand

Speaking of caddies, the word on the range here at the Sony is that Ryan Moore has enlisted the services of veteran looper Tony Navarro.

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