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Tadd Different
Alan Shipnuck
December 10, 2007
When 16-year-old Tadd Fujikawa announced that he was turning pro, he was lumped together with another Hawaiian prodigy--even though they are polar opposites
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December 10, 2007

Tadd Different

When 16-year-old Tadd Fujikawa announced that he was turning pro, he was lumped together with another Hawaiian prodigy--even though they are polar opposites

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As diminutive as Fujikawa is, it would be a mistake to underestimate his fighting spirit. "In judo he was like a wild animal," says Derrick, an instructor at the Salt Lake Judo Club, which has been run for decades by his father, Danny. "All the kids were a head taller, but they would cry when they had to face him because they were so scared." A month after the Sony, Fujikawa he won the Pearl Open, a pro tournament in Hawaii that attracts regulars from the Japanese tour. Fujikawa iced the tournament with approach shots to two feet or less on two of the final three holes.

His success against the pros convinced Fujikawa that he had outgrown amateur golf, but his parents were tortured about letting him play for pay and spent months trying to talk him out of it. Tadd ultimately wore them down. In many quarters Wie's career has come to be viewed as little more than a cynical cash grab, and Fujikawa's decision to go pro was inevitably seen in the same light. "The comparisons are unfair because we're different people and our situations are very different," Tadd says.

Wie is the daughter of a university professor and attended the Punahou School, a bastion of the Hawaiian elite. Fujikawa was offered a scholarship there but instead chose Moanalua, a large public high school that, according to a news clipping in the school's front office, draws from a district with a median annual income of $38,427, below the state average. Explaining his decision, Tadd says, "I feel more comfortable there. It's more my kind of place."

Derrick is a self-employed contractor specializing in plumbing and air conditioning, and the work comes and goes. (His gig as a judo instructor is unpaid.) Lori works part time doing paperwork for an auto body shop, but spends most of her time attending to her son's hectic schedule. Her duties include acting as chauffeur because Tadd has been too busy to get his driver's license, or so he claims.

The Fujikawas' humble material circumstances played a big part in Tadd's decision to turn pro. When he was an amateur, the outside assistance he (or the family) could receive to defray travel expenses to the mainland was limited. In recent months Fujikawa has teed it up at the Omega Masters in Switzerland and the Casio Open in Japan, with the tournaments supplying airfare and other travel expenses for Tadd and Lori.

In all, Fujikawa has played eight tournaments as a pro, including three on the PGA Tour (where any kind of travel stipend is forbidden). His career earnings so far are $0, as he has yet to make a cut. The family is getting by with help from Tadd's grandparents and something called the Tadd Fujikawa Dream Fund, which was started by a group of magnanimous Hawaiians and has grown to about $10,000. "It's been hard to make ends meet," Lori says, "but we're used to having to sacrifice."

It was by design that Tadd did not sign any endorsement deals in the first four months after turning pro. In formulating a marketing strategy, those around Fujikawa looked at Wie's career blueprint and basically did the opposite. Says Tadd's attorney, Kevin Bell, "There was certainly plenty of interest, but we didn't want Tadd to be burdened by extra demands on his time or feel like he had the pressure of having to justify corporate contracts. The idea was to give him time to settle in."

To no one's surprise, Fujikawa has received a sponsor's exemption to play in next month's Sony Open, where he will be the center of attention, not to mention the tournament's ad campaigns. (He'll turn 17 on Jan. 8, two days before the tournament begins.) To cash in on all that publicity, Bell has been ramping up discussions with potential sponsors, which is how Fujikawa recently found himself in a sterile conference room atop a Honolulu high-rise. Eight other people crowded the table, including Bell, representatives of a marketing firm that he has retained and executives from go! Airlines, which services the Hawaiian Islands and the West Coast. After the lengthy ritual exchange of business cards the air crackled with business jargon such as corporate alliances, cross-platform branding and activation initiatives. Tadd sat impassively at the head of the table, swallowed up by a large black leather chair. During the 45-minute meeting he asked no questions and was content to let the grown-ups do all the talking. Afterward he was asked if the experience was interesting or torturous. "A little of both," he said.

Bell is waiting on a final proposal from go! and its parent company, Mesa Airlines, but is confident a deal will get done. Also being finalized are endorsement pacts with Aloha Petroleum, a watch company and what Bell says is a major food manufacturer. These contracts will give Fujikawa and his family some financial relief, but none of the deals will be blockbusters, and Tadd still has not signed with an equipment manufacturer. Bell is too polite to say it, but it's clear that Wie has become so radioactive that the fallout is being felt by the next teen phenom to come along.

While the business aspects continue to get worked out, Fujikawa is focused primarily on improving his game, the foundation of which is a natural swing. He is blessed with athletic genes, and in fact is the only one in the family without a black belt. Ball striking is Fujikawa's strength, perhaps a surprise for someone who is so small. "Tadd's height would be an issue if he were a short hitter, but he's not," says Todd Anderson, Fujikawa's swing coach since July. "He generates plenty of speed, and he compresses the ball nicely. I actually think his height can be an advantage, because he has fewer angles and moving parts to worry about, and it definitely helps him when it's windy."

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