Brad Faxon is a cool guy. Golf fans love him because his TV commercials are funny, he genuinely likes to press flesh with the people, and often after a round he will empty his bag and pass out the goodies as souvenirs. Reporters love him because he's quick with a quip and is fond of milling around the pressroom, casually mingling and spreading cheer. And the other players love him because he's a classy competitor and, for all his talent, not much of a threat to take any money out of their pockets by doing something rash like winning a tournament. That's because the only time Faxon seems to lose his cool is when the pressure builds up, like at last week's United Airlines Hawaiian Open, where he lost a white-knuckles playoff to Jim Furyk.
It was the third victory in four months for Furyk, a 25-year-old third-year pro who earned his first Tour win last October in Las Vegas and then beat a strong field three weeks later in the unofficial Kapalua International. It's time to stop talking about Furyk's funny swing and start celebrating him as one of the best young players in golf. But on Sunday the only reputation being cemented at Oahu's Waialae Country Club was Faxon's as an overrated player. The Hawaiian was his latest lost opportunity to win his first tournament since 1992. "It's a tremendous disappointment," Faxon said after Sunday's round. "Ultimately, you're measured by winning. That's the only thing that matters."
For years observers have considered Faxon one of the most promising players in the game, which just goes to show how far one good year and one outrageous round can take you. That one good season was '92, his ninth on Tour, when Faxon won the New England Classic and the International and finishes eighth on the money list. Faxon did display some titanium at last year's PGA Championship, when he dropped a stunning 63 on venerable Riviera during the final round to earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team. But the luster was dulled considerably at Oak Hill when he teamed with Peter Jacobsen to lose one match and then dropped another, in singles, to lightly regarded David Guilford.
It was more of the same in Hawaii. Faxon played beautifully on his way to tying Steve Stricker for a share of the third-round lead at nine under, a shot in front of Furyk. But he started to lose it on the way in on Sunday and looked like a goner when his rope-hooked drive on the cupcake par-5 18th headed straight toward a bunker in the left rough. Somehow Faxon's ball skipped through, and he was able to knock his second shot onto the green. Then he made a 50-foot prayer for eagle to force the playoff, inspiring him to uncork a primal scream. It was a great moment and, naturally, short-lived.
Faxon duck-hooked his drive on the first playoff hole and had to scramble for a par, but not before ABC had pulled the plug on golf and switched to the news everywhere in the country but on the West Coast. On the third playoff hole, the easy 18th, Faxon twice found the rough and took a par. Furyk finished him off with a two-foot tap-in for the winning bird. "There were so many opportunities to win, but I just hit the ball terribly today," Faxon said. "I don't think I hit the middle of the club face all day long." Furyk struggled at times as well but gutted it out when it mattered the most. "I'm not proud of every shot I hit, just the end result," he said.
The playoff was a dramatic end to what was an eventful week, dominated by good Japanese golfers, bad weather and Paul Azinger.
The Hawaiian Open has always had a Japanese flavor, and not just because the marshals' placards implore quiet in both English and Japanese. In 1983 Isao Aoki became the first, and only, native of Japan to win a Tour event when he holed a wedge shot for eagle on the 72nd hole. Seven years later David Ishii, a Japanese-American born and raised in Hawaii, became Ichiban—numero uno—by coming out of nowhere to pull off a stunning one-shot victory over Azinger. This year the tournament was enlivened by seven Japanese pros, the most ever to play in a Tour event.
Three squeaked through Monday qualifying, beating out 80 other Japanese pros (plus some 50 gringos). Alas, the trio—Tomohiro Maruyama, Kaname Yokoo and Shinichi Yokota—all missed the cut. Four others got in on sponsor's exemptions, including Joe Ozaki, one of Japan's keynote players, who finished 11th. But the splashiest showing was by Nobuo Serizawa, a 36-year-old from Gotemba City (in the shadow of Mount Fuji) who during Saturday's third round dunked two approach shots on par-4 holes for eagles.
For all the buzz that the Japanese created, the big news in Hawaii was a frosty wind that sent scores skying, especially during the first two rounds, and pushed the cut to three-over 147. Gusts were reported at 45 mph, but, said Jeff Sluman, "it felt more like 100 mph."
Creativity and adaptability were key. Azinger worked his ball around Waialae with his arsenal of punch shots and bump and runs on the way to a smooth 71-70-71-69-281 and 11th, his best finish since a tie for fourth at last year's Hawaiian Open. Including his solid showings at Phoenix and San Diego, Zinger has played 11 of his 12 rounds this season under par and finally appears back to full strength a year and a half after his chemotherapy. "I'm a lot better player than I was last year," he says. "I'm physically stronger, my swing is more consistent, I'm hitting my irons crisper, and my putting is better."