Ken Tanigawa returns to roots at Hualalai
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Playing with authentic joy, finishes runner-up at 2023 season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship
Written by Bob McClellan @ChampionsTour
If PGA TOUR Champions were Top Gun flight school, Ken Tanigawa had lost that loving feeling.
And it caught him completely off guard.
Tanigawa, 55, who played at UCLA with Scott McCarron and Brandt Jobe, bounced around on lower professional golf tours after turning pro in 1990, but he never played full time after 2003. He regained his amateur status in 2010 at age 41 and enjoyed a stellar amateur career before turning 50, when he made it through Q-School and earned 2018 PGA TOUR Champions membership.
That year, he won the PURE Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach and was named PGA TOUR Champions Rookie of the Year. He won his first major in 2019, the Senior PGA Championship … and he hasn’t won since.
In fact, in his next 80 starts, Tanigawa’s best finish was a T5 until last week’s Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai, where he put together rounds of 68, 65 and 66 to tie for second behind Steve Stricker.
What happened to him between the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2023? It began to sink in that he was playing golf for a living instead of living to play golf. Tanigawa can’t say for sure when it began to eat at him, only that it did. And it soured him on the game he loved.
“I’m trying to get back to being an amateur golfer, mentally,” Tanigawa said this week from Hawaii, where he has continued to stay and play (he has a daughter in Oahu). “When I first came out here, I played because it didn’t matter. But you get in the pro game and environment and all of a sudden results matter, and it got hard and kind of ucky.
“I took seven weeks off after the season (end of 2022) and didn’t touch a club, which is great. I could have used another seven, but Hawaii is too good to pass up.”
There was a time before he ever considered joining PGA TOUR Champions that Tanigawa would have found the thought of not playing or practicing for seven weeks utterly preposterous. If there was a serious game or even a fun one at his home course in Scottsdale, Arizona, Whisper Rock, he was ready to go.
His perspective obviously changed. Mentally, Tanigawa needed a break.
“I wouldn’t say it’s not fun, don’t get me wrong,” Tanigawa said. “Being out here is an amazing opportunity and I appreciate every aspect of playing, but I think it’s … over time you just kind of realize … you know, I wasn’t that guy who played (on the PGA TOUR) for all those years. I had nothing to … how do I phrase this? It’s hard to explain. I think it’s a combination of a bunch of little things. When you’re an amateur, it doesn’t matter. It’s not what you do. If you play well, it’s fun. If you play bad, it’s fine. Nobody cares.
“When you’re a pro golfer, it’s your job and it matters more. The whole environment is based on that. It’s competition, and I get that. But the fun tire kind of started seeping for me, and I just needed to get that back.”
It’s quite an analogy – a tire losing air – but it fits to a tee. Tanigawa never considered quitting PGA TOUR Champions. He didn’t feel that badly. But he knew he couldn’t be the player he’d been in his first two years on Tour unless it was where he wanted to be. He had to patch the tire.
“This week I played wonderfully because I just kind of realized it doesn’t matter and I realized I don’t need to play, and I think freed me up to just enjoy it,” Tanigawa said. “I mean, s**t, you’re in Hualalai.”
Tanigawa did pretty much everything well on the course. He ranked 10th in driving distance, 13th in driving accuracy, fifth in putting and first in eagles with three. The putting average really stood out; he said he couldn’t remember the last time he’d putted that well.
Tanigawa utilized the AimPoint putting method for the first time in competition. He worked on it in the offseason after picking up some pointers from his old friend McCarron.
“I called Mark Sweeney, who invented it, and we set Ken up with Gordon Bennett in Tucson to learn from an expert,” McCarron said. “Ken learned quickly, which is no surprise.”
Tanigawa likes it because he believes it has made him more decisive over putts.
“I don’t think I was ever a decent green reader, and all great putters are great green readers,” Tanigawa said. “Gordon Bennett came to TPC Scottsdale and we worked for a couple of hours and I learned all about it.
“I made a lot of putts, a lot of breaking putts. The ones I missed, I misread. When you use AimPoint, you accept your misses better, which is kind of weird, but it’s very structured. That’s as many putts as I’ve made – the ones you’re supposed to make – consistently.”
So, does a great start to 2023 change Tanigawa’s expectations for his sixth season on PGA TOUR Champions?
“I came in with zero expectations, and I throw them right out the window. I don’t have any,” Tanigawa said. “And to be honest, I don’t want any. Just work hard when I do work and take time off when I need to and go all-in when I play and do the best I can and enjoy it.
“One of my true goals is just to have fun. Have fun traveling with my wife and enjoy the game. Whether I finish first or 10th or 50th, I need to make sure I stay on the path where I’m smiling and enjoying. … If I can play as little as I need and secure a job for next year, that would be pretty dreamy.”