HONOLULU – It was an idyllic Hawaiian morning, with clear skies and temperatures inching past 70 degrees, when the tropical calm was shattered across the island.
Just past 8 a.m. on Jan. 13, 2018, phones across Oahu received a stunning alert.
“Emergency Alert: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
The day’s first tee time for the third round of the Sony Open was still three hours away and those who had made it to the weekend of the year’s first full-field event where either sleeping or grabbing early breakfast.
Keith Mitchell, who was playing the Sony Open for the first time, was jarred from his bed by the message at the same time as his roommate for the week, fellow Tour pro Stephan Jaeger, received the message.
“We woke up and looked at our phones and looked at each other and neither of us said anything. He started running around panicking,” Mitchell remembered. “He wanted to go downstairs and I remember being way too calm for the situation.”
Twenty minutes after receiving the alert, Mitchell heard from his family back on the mainland that it was a false alarm. “It was not cool,” he said.
Even a year removed from one of the most bizarre starts to a Tour round, players remember –some with frightening clarity – exactly what they were doing and how they reacted when the infamous message arrived.
Because Hawaii is a vacation destination, many players bring friends and family for the week. Charles Howell III, who has played the event 17 times in his career, had his wife and two children with him.
“We were in the back of the hotel having breakfast and I just told the kids let’s just go to the beach and watch it,” Howell recalled. “There’s not much you can do at that point so you might as well get a front-row seat to this thing. We can’t get far enough away from one those big old things (missiles).”
Tourist flooded the streets of Waikiki searching for bomb shelters and answers, but the vast majority of players took a more philosophical approach. Justin Thomas, for example, turned on some music and went to his balcony.
“I just watched,” Thomas said. “If a missile comes in I’m really not going to be able to do anything. At least I can watch it come in. I was going to die if I was in my room or on my balcony. If this is the real thing, I’m going to enjoy my last couple of minutes looking at the ocean.”
Patton Kizzire, who was tied for seventh place heading into the third round and won the event in a playoff over James Hahn, was a little more proactive.
“It woke me up and it took me a second to realize what was going on. I texted some of my friends and some were really scared and some were staying in bed,” Kizzire said. “There were mixed reviews, but I was really scared.”
Kizzire was staying adjacent to Waialae Country Club at the Kahala Hotel, where most players stay during tournament week. He went downstairs to a player-hospitality room that was filled with players and their families. “There were 30 players and families. Some people were crying, some were just staring off into space,” he recalled.
It took 38 minutes before officials sent another message across the island to clarify that the original alert was a “false alarm.” Before that, tension climbed with every passing minute.
“There were a lot of people panicking. I probably panicked for about 10 seconds,” Russell Knox said.
With no clear plan of action, players and caddies ran through the options. Jordan Spieth went to his bathroom and sat in the tub, figuring it would be the safest place in the event it wasn’t a drill. He eventually climbed back out because, “I felt silly,” he said.
Other players called friends and family on the mainland searching for information or simply to hear a familiar voice. And some, like Knox, decided to make the most of what would be a front-row seat.
“My wife was out for a walk and I was in the hotel room (in Waikiki) and as soon as I got the alert I grabbed my phone and went out to the balcony and pressed record,” Knox laughed. “I don’t know what I was thinking, but I was like, 'I’m going to film my death.' Then I called my wife. I probably had the wrong order there.”
Twelve months removed from those tense moments, it’s easy to laugh about that day. But anyone who was on Oahu on Jan. 13, 2018, will tell you it was nothing to chuckle about.