The most popular player at Kapalua for the Mercedes-Benz Championship is a 37-year-old who once toiled in Japan, struggled to keep his PGA TOUR card the last couple of years and earned fleeting fame for playing with a woman. Even his breakthrough victory last year at the International was not terribly popular because he beat Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman in a playoff.
In these parts, though, Dean Wilson is a star.
He is the first player from Hawaii to play in the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship since it moved to Kapalua in 1999.
'I'm pretty excited, being that this tournament is in Hawaii,' Wilson said. 'It's the first tournament of the year, my family is coming over to watch me. Everyone is happy to have a Hawaii guy in the field.'
His presence at Kapalua illustrates a banner year for golf in Hawaii.
The Honolulu Advertiser published on New Year's Day its top-10 sports stories for 2006, and golf occupied half the list.
Topping the chart was record-setting quarterback Colt Brennan and the Hawaii football team, following by the University of Hawaii volleyball team reaching the regional final (volleyball is huge in these parts). The top golfer on the list was Kimberly Kim, the 14-year-old who became the youngest champion of the U.S. Women's Amateur.
Wilson was fourth.
'I'm still a second-rate golfer,' Wilson said with a laugh. 'But hey, I'm getting better. I'm moving up the list.'
At least he finished ahead of Michelle Wie, who was fifth.
That has been a running joke for Wilson the last several years, especially with all the hype over Wie at the Sony Open. Wilson has been Hawaii's best player for a decade -- he was a six-time winner on the Japan PGA Tour -- but he never could get an exemption to his hometown tournament.
Wilson qualified for the U.S. Open, but he again was overshadowed by a teenager from Hawaii, 15-year-old Tadd Fujikawa. The freshman at Moanalua High became the youngest player since 1941 to qualify for the U.S. Open. He finished No. 6 on the Advertiser list.
The other golfer on the list (No. 9) was Casey Watabu, who beat Anthony Kim to win the U.S. Public Links Amateur. And to top off the year, Parker McLachlin earned his PGA TOUR card at Q-school. That got honorable mention.
'It's been the best summer ever for Hawaii,' Wilson said.
The success of golf on the islands will hit home later this year.
The last player from Hawaii to compete in the Masters was Guy Yamamoto in 1995, from winning the Public Links. This year, Hawaii will have two players at Augusta National for the first time -- Wilson, from finishing 22nd on the PGA TOUR money list, and Watabu from his victory in the Public Links.
Wilson still remembers what a big deal it was for David Ishii to play in the 1990 Masters, having won the Hawaiian Open that year.
'It's always good to know someone and have them set an example and show that it's possible,' Wilson said. 'Ishii did that in '90. And more recently for me was Mike Weir, watching his success as a college teammate (they played together at BYU).'
Ishii shot 74-79 and Yamamoto went 84-77. Both missed the cut.
In some respects, Kapalua is like Augusta National for Wilson.
He has watched the Mercedes-Benz Championship every year since it moved to Maui and feels like he knows every hole. And when he played the course for the first time, he was amazed at the elevation changes, the size and the speed of the greens.
'TV doesn't do it justice,' he said, a remark often heard by players at the Masters for the first time.
It was stunning to hear that a guy who was born and raised in Hawaii and grew up playing golf had never set foot on the Plantation course until a practice round last week.
'Growing up here, everyone thinks I've played every course,' Wilson said. 'I was a little junior golfer who couldn't afford to be on a resort course, and had no reason to be on one unless there was a junior tournament.'
He grew up in Kaneohe, on the windward side of Oahu, and beat the ball around public courses such as Pali.
'I came over here once to buy a hat,' Wilson said. 'That was about it.'
Wilson didn't get off to a great start. He took double bogey after hitting into the knee-high native grasses on No. 3, and he took another double bogey on the 15th when he three-putted from 15 feet, which is easy to do in 30 mph wind. He wound up with an 80 on Thursday, a score that is not unusual the first tournament of the year in severe conditions.
His gallery was among the largest, and the cheer when he was introduced on the first tee made it sound like Sunday.
Big crowds are not the norm for Wilson, except when he got into a playoff with Lehman at the International, beating him on the first extra hole. And there were those two rounds at Colonial in 2003, when he was paired with Annika Sorenstam as she became the first woman in 58 years to play on the PGA Tour.
That is more a footnote for Wilson now, who has moved on to bigger things.
And the rest of Hawaii is following.
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