- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — When Tadd Fujikawa was born, 31/2 months premature, the doctors at Kapiolani Hospital in Oahu, Hawaii, “didn’t even consider him an infant,” his mother Lori says. “They said, ‘You have a fetus.’”

They also told her he had a 50-50 chance to survive — and that his odds of escaping birth defects were even worse, particularly since he was (a) a boy and (b) Asian.

Tadd’s undeveloped skin was virtually transparent. He weighed less than 2 pounds.

“Everything that has brought him to today is all by machine,” his mom says — machines, that is, and five operations.

Tomorrow at Winged Foot, at the age of 15 years, 7 months, the miracle baby will become the youngest player in the modern era to tee it up in the U.S. Open. He’s still no giant; indeed, at 5-foot-11, 135 pounds, he’s kind of a Japanese-American version of Ian Woosnam. But that doesn’t keep him from driving the ball, by his estimate, 280 to 285 yards. It also doesn’t keep him from holing a 65-foot putt under playoff pressure to make it through the first round of qualifying.

Of course, when you’ve battled for life from your very first breath, what’s a 65-footer? A gimme.

If any Hawaiian high schooler qualified for this Open, it figured to be the Teen Queen, Michelle Wie. But when the latter opted to enter the New Jersey sectional instead of staying home, it opened the door for Fujikawa to claim the single berth up for grabs in Kauai — which he did by the slimmest of margins.

Not bad for a kid who didn’t get serious about golf until he was 12 (when, after winning four national junior championship in judo, he decided he was ready for something different). His training on the mat prepared him well for the equally fierce competition on the links. In judo, he says, “I always had to go against guys bigger than me. What that taught me is that it doesn’t matter how big and strong you are. Anybody can beat anybody.”

Today he’s hoping to play a 7 a.m. practice round with Tiger Woods. Sure beats the American Junior Golf Association FootJoy Boys’ Invitational, which is where he would be this week if the fates hadn’t intervened.

“It’s scheduled,” he says of his foursome with Woods, “but I think you can decline if you want to.”

Pressure’s on, Tiger. For some players in the U.S. Open, players like Tadd Fujikawa, just Getting There is the prize.

Another in this category is Madalitso Muthiya. As much of a long shot as Tadd is, there’s no unlikelier contestant in this 106th Open than 23-year-old Madalitso Muthiya.

Muthiya’s first steps on the road to Winged Foot were taken in Zambia, of all places — with a mix-and-match set of clubs his father had collected.

“They were like junior clubs, ladies’ clubs, very light,” he says.

The grips were pink. He doesn’t even remember what brand they were, though he’s pretty sure the driver was a Cougar.

Zambia, a nation of 9 million in the south of Africa, isn’t exactly a cradle of golfers. It has only 17 courses, according to Muthiya, and has never had a player qualify for the U.S. Open — until now.

Heck, its doubtful Muthiya would be here without the assistance of the country’s former president, Frederick Chiluba. Chiluba invited him to the State House after reading of his local golf exploits and asked if there was anything he could do. Muthiya told him he wanted to play college golf in the U.S. and to compete on the PGA Tour someday.

“I have a friend …,” the president said.

Soon enough, Muthiya was being introduced to James Roth, who worked in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative as deputy director of African affairs. Roth arranged for Muthiya to play in a tournament in Florida, the Nolan Henke/Patty Berg Junior Masters, and, amazingly, he won it.

“That’s where the University of New Mexico golf coach saw me and recruited me,” he says.

After a successful career at New Mexico, Muthiya joined the Canadian Tour, and that — along with a second-place finish in the Zambian Open in March — got his game in shape for U.S. Open qualifying. He actually won the sectional at Double Eagle, outside of Columbus, Ohio, shooting 65-69-144.

And to think he never had a lesson until he got to college, just a few years ago. To think he learned the game “through watching TV and reading magazines and [observing] what the pros do. I would say sometimes I wanted to swing like Nick Faldo.”

Hard to believe, isn’t it? Madalitso Muthiya is in the Open … and Nick Faldo isn’t. This really is a tournament of dreams.

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