Hyundai TOC marks Rolf’s role as Big Kahuna

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The finalé wasn’t exactly picture-perfect, but the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, at the Mark & Debi Rolfing Charitable Foundation, will be remembered, at least by me, for its brilliant presentation of golf by a master showman: Mark Rolfing. My time that week up at the resort was cut short, due to a credentials snafu, but I saw enough to cobble this story together for you in spite of my obstacles.

While nary an event committee will ever be able to control everything, Mark Rolfing’s organization managed to control what they could, to a tee. It was only that which the Golfing Gods themselves chose to tangle with, that defied them.

Nonetheless, this was Mark Rolfing’s return as the event’s official organizer, and he was going to bring all he had to bear to the cause. It wasn’t just a matter of pride. The event had been on the ropes for years, there was a new sponsor, and he and his wife (Debi) had stepped-up to the table, financially, just to keep it alive. Add to all of that the fact that he had personally co-developed the Plantation Course, built the Kapalua brand almost single-handedly, and has built a career for himself analyzing Tour events… no one could’ve done the job. Not well anyway. That is why, in Hawaii, there is only one Big Kahuna when it comes to golf—and right or wrong, that person is: Mark Rolfing. The event, Maui, Hawaii, and all of us who consider ourselves fans of the game, owe him a debt of gratitude.

Mark Rolfing’s team is a who’s who in Hawaii. It includes his long-time right-hand-producer, Margaret Santos; the event’s everlasting tournament director, Nancy Cross; and a bevy of other Kapalua veterans. As a group, they promoted the event like there was no tomorrow. They made sure the course was in perfect condition, and staged daily entertainment and sideshows with style and class. They nourished the vine of junior golf with an opening-day match devoted solely to that purpose. And from a logistics standpoint, the parking and shuttle buses were first-rate and free all week. They even offered free lunches for the kids who arrived early for the event’s Sunday kick off. It was a carefully planned, perfectly executed event. I’ve seen a few dozen of these over the years, and this was tops all the way.

The televised show was spectacularly produced and broadcast by the Comcast-owned Golf Channel, which also owns NBC, and is Mark Rolfing’s employer. What a spectacle it has been to witness the evolution of Golf Channel, and the consolidation of the broadcast industry itself, which now has such a monopoly on golf that for the little guy like me, they seem almost invincible.

Fans I spoke to genuinely had a great time. One six-handicapper from the mainland remarked that it was the hallmark of his visit. He described how the access was so convenient and easy that it was a pleasure to attend.

The eight-day-long affair began on the Sunday before official play was to end. Lots of fanfare and a colorful, former long-drive champ, Dan Boever, was emceeing as several tour players joined in a three-hole exhibition for the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association, with local Maui golfer Pard Erdman among the luminaries in attendance.

Local golf legend and former LPGA Tour pro Mary Bea Porter-King was on hand to co-host the Junior Golf event’s kick-off. Hawaii State Open winner and eGolf Tour player Tadd Fujikawa, and Oahu-born PGA Tour player, Dean Wilson also participated.

A couple of days of practice were followed by a pro-am and a long-drive contest which was won by Jamie Sadlowski, the two-time defending Re/Max World Long Drive champion. Garrigus, who along with Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, was blown away by former hockey player, would smash his drives over 390-yards on many holes this week when it counted.

Mark Rolfing’s team put all the pieces of the tournament puzzle together perfectly. Everything visual, logistical, and controllable by them was indeed perfection. The stage was set. Now it was up to the cast of 32 characters—the prior year’s PGA Tour winners and champions—to make the show come to life.

But an odd start, when two-time defending champion Geoff Ogilvy was forced to withdraw after injuring his index finger and receiving 12 stitches during a mishap on the beach, would cast a shadow on the proceedings in spite of Mark Rolfing’s best efforts. Ogilvy’s salty injury caused Jim Furyk, who was to tee off with the two-time defending champ, to decide if he wanted to play alone, or have what they call a ‘marker’, someone to play along and help keep the pace. Furyk opted for the later and asked Plantation Course head golf professional, Scott Carroll, to do the honors. When Scott got to the first tee, he was overwhelmed by the show of gallery support he received. Given how thin the galleries were all week, Scott’s Tour debut may very well have been the apex of the roars to be heard.

That wasn’t the only mishap that week: the tournament would lose another player on day one: Camilo Villegas, who disqualified when, while his second chip was coming back to his feet on the 15th, he flicked away loose pieces of grass where the ball was headed. Someone Tweeted the faux pas on Twitter and he was DQed, after the round was over. (No one running the event actually caught it, but Mark Rolfing, who was describing the live action on TV with co-anchor Nick Faldo, said he knew better.).

Then there was three-time winner Stuart Appleby. Appleby lost his Odyssey White Hot XG330 mallet putter, the one he used to shoot 59 en route to winning The Greenbrier Classic in 2010, and that caused a stir, leaving everyone to speculate whether or not he’d fare as well without it. He did: leading the field that Thursday in putting average at 1.462, with on 28 putts in his round, some outisde 22-feet!

Considering how much time, effort, planning, it seemed like these distractions stole the stage, in spite of Mark Rolfing’s best efforts to downplay what was seemingly trivial.

Tournament play officially began on Thursday morning. The greens were soft, winds were down, and that made the Tour’s only par 73 play longer, but nobody was complaining.

Over the span of the 72-hole event, the Plantation Course itself would succeed in pitting long- and short-hitters against each other in some pretty magnificent ways. Much of this had to do with the winds, which were down, up, prevailing, and Konas at various stages.

From the very onset, some of the event’s shortest hitters were in the hunt, including Byrd, the eventual winner, who holed out a wedge for eagle en route to a share of the overnight first round lead with a 7-under 66. He and co-leader Carl Pettersson would be outpaced the next day when the Tour’s longest hitter, Robert Garrigus, would use his length and his wedge game to go deep, shooting a 10-under 63 with an eagle on the par 4 16th. Even 2003 champion Ernie Els was in the hunt, after a stellar 64 put him into contention.

Saturday was not exactly moving day, as a Kona wind kicked up and made the course very difficult. In fact, the normally benign 1st hole was now playing the most difficult, with 13 bogeys or worse shot by the field. Steve Sticker, who has come close here before, emerged to join Garrigus and Byrd atop the leaderboard heading into the final round.

Interestingly, in a week that saw play inside-the-100-yard-range determining much of the outcome, it was two big final pokes in 18 by Garrigus that would land him in a playoff with Byrd, and three more with the flat stick a couple of holes later that would make Byrd, who was looking at losing his car only a few months ago, only the second player to win back-to-back events on the PGA Tour in 2010-11 (Els did it earlier in 2010).

When it all came down to the very last (2nd) sudden-death playoff hole, the cliché, “Drive for show, putt for dough”, couldn’t have been more apropos, as the winner, Jonathan Byrd, took away $1.12 million in cash and the silver trophy after Garrigus sadly three-putted to lose. His $635,000 check surely helped to break the fall.

While it may not have been a picture-perfect finish, with Garrigus three-putting in the end to lose the playoff, it was a week of golfing festivities unlike any other I’ve seen in the islands. While a few mishaps may have tried to steal the event’s thunder, they didn’t. Mark Rolfing, and his unflinching team, managed the event like it was on cruise control from the very onset.

If you missed the opportunity to be there last January, I suggest you give Kapalua another try in 2011. What went on this year was far and away the best event Hawaii has ever staged, and it is completely because of Mark Rolfing, the Big Kahuna.

Next year, be sure to make the effort. You won’t regret it!

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