KAPALUA, Hawaii – Gary Planos came to Maui some 35 years ago with $7,000 in traveler’s checks and no idea where he was going.
“I thought I was going to be a waiter,” he said from his office overlooking the ocean, a view that doesn’t get old. “I brought a correspondence book on advertising with me, sat on the beach, got bored and the next hour got a job at Kapalua.”
Planos started as a bag boy at the new Bay Course, earning $3 an hour with playing privileges.
It led to more than he could ever have imagined.
His amazing ride ends Sunday with the Tournament of Champions, an event over which he has presided for the better part of two decades, looking after everyone from Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods, from Hale Irwin to Ernie Els.
“Gary is Kapalua,” said Steve Stricker.
His job as senior vice president of resort operations – the ninth title he has held dating to his days as a bag boy – was eliminated last year as the resort changed its direction. It no longer will manage its golf courses or run tournaments.
For so many years, most people didn’t know what his title was. Planos simply was the guy who would show up at various PGA Tour events in an Aloha shirt with the famous Kapalua butterfly logo.
For years, Planos was identified just as easily by four words: “Do you need anything?”
He has taken David Toms and Chad Campbell on hunting trips. He has arranged fishing trips and whale-watching excursions on the Maui Jim boat for more people than he can count. Need a dinner reservation during the busiest week at Kapalua? Planos could whip out his cell phone and with one call take care of it.
Mike Ditka was in his steakhouse in Oak Brook, Ill., last September, trying to get out of the restaurant as patrons at every table stopped him to ask for an autograph or a picture. It was getting old. And then he saw Planos at a table and stopped to visit.
“How’s everything at Kapalua?” Ditka said, a frequent visitor.
Longtime friend Joe Torre once made a last-minute request. It seems New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte needed 15 hotel rooms at the Ritz-Carlton for New Year’s Eve during the millennium. Done.
“He’s been an incredible host,” Adam Scott said. “I can’t say enough about the guy. He has to deal with 32 prima donnas every year, and somehow he caters for all our needs. He’s done a hell of a job and there’s always a smile on his face.”
It’s not just the players whom Planos looks after.
Ernie Els came to Kapalua for the first time in 2000 when his daughter, Samantha, was 7 months old. He was amazed at the lengths Planos went to look after her.
“Out on tour, he’s just the best,” Els said. “I know they have had a tough time here, but I cannot say enough about Gary and the way he has handled the tournament and the players all these years. I don’t think there is a better tournament, really.”
Rocco Mediate brought his sons to Hawaii, and the day they were to leave, he forgot to arrange a ride to the airport. He made a phone call, only to learn Planos and his staff had already taken care of it.
“He takes care of everything, most of the time before you even know it,” Mediate said.
Scott brought his parents to Kapalua this year. Planos put them on the Maui Jim, let them play the Plantation Course the day before the tournament week got under way and arranged for golf anywhere on the island.
“My parents think he’s the guy’s meant to book all that stuff,” Scott said. “They have had the best time. More than making the players happy, he makes the people around them happy, which makes the players really happy.”
Planos has never given it a second thought.
“I learned really early that if I was friendly to whoever I was caddying for, I would get tipped better,” he said. “If you did a better job teaching, they would return. It’s not anything you have to think twice about.”
Planos grew up in the Chicago area as an Evans Scholar caddie, and remains part of the Western Golf Association.
So how does a bag boy become a favorite of golf’s biggest stars?
Planos decided to become an assistant pro, which took him away from Kapalua for a brief time, but not Maui. He worked at Kaanapali for three years, then spent four years at Wailea, working in the shop for six hours and teaching for six tours.
Mark Rolfing, the NBC Sports analyst who now runs the Tournament of Champions, was marketing director at Kapalua in 1984 when he hired Planos to be the head pro at the Village course, and Planos was on his way.
For the last 20 years, he has lived in a house that he rents with a view to Australia if he could see that far. His office in the pro shop at the Plantation Course overlooks the first tee, one of the most glorious vistas in golf.
“When I became an assistant pro, I thought I might be able to be a head pro and my highlight would be the member-guest,” Planos said. “I never realized my member-guest would be the Tournament of Champions. I got very lucky. I very much appreciate the luck I had. And I know I’ve got more ahead of me.”