Fujikawa to play Reno event on sponsor's exemption

HONOLULU -- Another teen from Hawaii is turning pro.

Tadd Fujikawa, the 16-year-old kid who became the youngest player in more than 50 years to make the cut on the PGA Tour, said Thursday he was giving up his amateur status and would make his pro debut in three weeks at the Reno-Tahoe Open.

"I'm really ready for this," he said. "It's something that I want to do."

Fujikawa made his announcement at a news conference at the Waialae Country Club, where in January the 5-foot-1 Fujikawa sent the gallery into a frenzy with an eagle on the 18th hole for a 66 that allowed him to make the cut at the Sony Open.

He stole the attention from Michelle Wie, the most popular golfer in Hawaii who turned pro at age 15. Wie, who just graduated high school, has spiraled into a miserable slump and has not broken par on any tour in nearly a year.

Wie's splashy news conference two years ago was very different from Fujikawa's low-key announcement, which had more friends and family members in attendance than media. Wie has signed multimillion-dollar deals with Nike and Sony. Fujikawa is still working on his first contract.

Fujikawa quickly shot down any comparisons between the teens.

"You can't really compare yourself with anyone else," he said. "You're two different people. You're playing two different stages. She's on the LPGA. I'm the PGA. ... It's just totally different."

Fujikawa, who just finished his sophomore year at Moanalua High School, said he still plans to finish high school and attend college.

He first drew attention in 2006 as a 15-year-old player when he qualified for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, becoming the youngest to participate in an Open. But it was his experience at the Sony that pushed him to turn pro.

Fujikawa shot consecutive rounds of 66 to get his name on the first page of the leaderboard and finished with a 72 to tie for 20th -- a shot better than John Daly, two better than Vijay Singh.

"It showed me I can compete with the best players in the world and I can handle myself in front of the cameras. But sometimes I get a little nervous," he said.

A month after the Sony, Fujikawa became the youngest winner of the Hawaii Pearl Open, beating a field packed with pros from Japan. Because of his amateur status, the youngster gave up more than $66,000 in earnings in the two events.

Finances weren't really a factor in this decision.

"I'm not in it for the money at all. I just want to play with the best players in the world," he said.

Lori Fujikawa, who wiped away tears as she stood behind a row of television cameras, said that her son turning pro will make it easier for him to concentrate on golf.

"It's hard to tell your child, 'No, you can't do it,'" she said.

Lori Fujikawa, an office clerk at an auto body shop, said paying for her son's travels to the mainland, golf lessons and other expenses has been extremely difficult. Family members often had to help out.

"We always went the cheapest route and it was still expensive," she said.

Lori Fujikawa doesn't plan to quit her job.

"Our life will not change. We'll still work," she said.

While other players stayed at the closest resorts, the Fujikawas opted for motels in the area.

Derrick Fujikawa remembers when his only child was just 5 and would take swings in their backyard. By age 11, the younger Fujikawa was beating his dad on the golf course.

"But I still could beat him in judo," his father said.

Derrick Fujikawa said his son, who was often the smallest kid around, has always been a "fierce competitor."

Fujikawa was a fighter from the time he was born -- 3½ months early, so small that he weighed only 1 pound, 15 ounces and could fit into his grandfather's palm. Fujikawa, who had only a 50 percent chance to live, made it through a series of operations the first year, one to reconnect his intestines.

"I try not to think about those days," Derrick Fujikawa said. "He went through a lot. I don't know how he does it, but everything he does, he tries his best at."

Fujikawa received a sponsor's exemption to the Reno-Tahoe Open, which starts Aug. 2.

Kevin Bell, who will serve as his attorney-agent, said Fujikawa will seek other sponsor exemptions on the PGA Tour or try to qualify on the PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour and in Japan until he finishes high school.

Bell said Fujikawa understands how high the level of play is on tour.

"He doesn't believe he's going to take the world by storm," Bell said. "He needs to develop his game and take it to that next level. This was a way for him to do that."

Fujikawa said he feels confident about his game and knows having the "A" removed means he'll be playing for a lot more than just fun.

"As of right now, there's no going back," he said.