Ethan Abbott was 9 or 10 years old when he first saw the movie, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
The 1963 film, centered around a wacky race to find $350,000 in stolen cash, starred Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters and Milton Berle, among others in an A-list ensemble cast. Shoot, the Three Stooges even made an appearance.
“It was just a very funny, hilarious, interesting, captivating movie,” Abbott recalled. “I have the DVD now so we'll put it on and watch it. I can pretty much watch any portion of the movie and pick right up on what's going on.”
Small wonder, then, that Abbott picked up on something else when he would play golf at Waialae Country Club.
Behind the seventh green as members like Abbott play the classic Seth Raynor design — or the 16th as the pros see the course during this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii — were four very tall coconut trees. With a little imagination, he thought, those trees could be formed into a “big dubya” like the one in the movie where the money was buried.
“Coconut trees in Hawaii are wonderful and great and they add to landscaping and the shade,” Abbott said. “But after 20 years they grow very, very tall and don't provide any shade. Actually, you know, they're kind of ugly after a while.
“And as I became a member and started playing and came down that the seventh fairway, if you'd looked down there and the ocean was right behind and the trees were kind of swaying and I said over and over again, that'd be a perfect place for the big W from the movie.”
After all, the ‘W’ could stand for Waialae.
A little more than a decade ago, Abbott began lobbying to alter the landscape. Club manager Allan Lum was on board. So was course superintendent Dave Nakama.
So Abbott made a video that included scenes from the iconic movie — particularly the spot where the money was unearthed — and made presentations to the club’s greens committee, the executive committee and the board of directors.
“Quite a few people were supportive, but there were some, especially the old-timers, who felt this is not appropriate for their golf course,” Abbott recalled. “Now 99.9 percent of them have come around and said what a great, great thing it is and how much they enjoy it.
“But there are one or two, they'll still kind of look sideways at me, but that's the way it goes.”
As it turned out, the entire project only cost about $3,500 — and the money came from a gift already earmarked for a project on the course. And with several hundred coconut trees lining the fairways at Waialae, no one had to look far to find four that could be added to the ‘W’ project.
“I really give a lot of credit to the arborist, Steve Nimz, actually,” Abbot said. “I may have had the idea and the kind of vision, but he had to physically make the trees in the shape of a ‘W’ and do it correctly.”
Two of the existing trees were left for stabilization while four new palms were brought in and planted sideways around them to form the letter. He and Nakama used walkie-talkies that day to help the crane operators position the trees.
“I'm not an artist, but your eye, you can kind of see if it looks right,” Abbott said. “It's straight or is one too far — like putting a painting on a wall. So we were able (to give feedback) with the walkie talkie and they had some big cranes and we said, you know, go up another foot, go up another foot on this side.”
Nine months later the trees used for stabilization were removed. Now even the people without imaginations could see Abbott’s vision.
“It just was symmetrically perfect,” he recalled. “I was thrilled and excited and it was even better than the movie because it was the real thing. … I said, ‘Yep, this is it. We've nailed it.’”
The ‘W’ trees have taken on a life of their own in the years since.
The scene will be shown repeatedly this week on Golf Channel telecasts. The ‘W’ is also featured in logos on merchandise and has won national landscape awards.
“I always know when the telecast is on because all of a sudden … I’ll start getting texts from Boston and Florida and Colorado, different friends that, say, ‘Hey, they just mentioned your name on TV,’” Abbott chuckled.
Golfers often stop to take pictures in front of the tableau. Sometimes, people walk into the pro shop off the street to see if they can go out to the seventh green for selfies. And it’s a very popular place for wedding photos, particularly when the groom’s name starts with a ‘W.’
Abbott lives about a mile-and-a-half away from Waialae, where he’s been a member since 1999. He caddied for a friend in Wednesday’s pro-am — no word on whether they stopped for the obligatory photo op — and enjoys seeing the world’s best golfers play his club each year.
When someone says that the ‘W’ has become such a landmark that it seems like it’s been behind the seventh green forever, Abbott pauses to reflect.
“When I hear that view it kind of sends shivers up my spine because literally, you know, it was just an idea,” he said. “It does feel good, yeah.”