Aloha spirit felt strongly during this year’s Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualālai
With Maunakea towering in the distance, 42 senior golfers took to Hualālai Resort’s lush golf course Saturday for the last day of the three-round Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualālai.
It was the first official tournament on the schedule of the 2023 PGA Tour Champions, which is for golfers 50 and older.
“Not of blade of grass is out place,” said Kelly Fliear, the tournament’s manager. “The course looks like an emerald green carpet.”
The tournament’s TV commentators raved about being able to watch whales breach at the course along the Big Island’s beautiful west coast.
On Saturday, during the final round, the sun shown bright all day with no clouds to offer relief from the Kona heat. But that didn’t deter the estimated 3,500 to 4,000 people spectators and volunteers that followed the competitors throughout the day, from hole to hole.
This is the first year the tournament has fully opened — without restrictions — since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in March 2020. While the event was held, in 2021, no spectators were allowed. Players were required to test negative several times prior to the event.
In 2022, spectators were allowed, but it was capped due to gathering size restrictions.
“We’re the most senior of the Champions tour,” Fliear said. “I call this the grand daddy of the Champions.”
Fliear said the tournament has worldwide reach, with it broadcast to 120 countries in seven languages.
This year, about 350 people volunteered at the event. Many come from the Rotary Club of Kona, which has been helping out for several years.
“I’ve nicknamed them the orange crush,” Fliear said of the volunteers. “I love them so much. They’ve been really instrumental. We call them the backbone of the tournament. Without them, it would be difficult.”
Fliear said the volunteers are so good with the aloha spirit and are ambassadors to the tournament.
Kona resident Kris Hazard, volunteer co-chair, has been involved with the tournament for 20 years.
“Over the years we’ve developed a great core of management,” she said.
Volunteers have several jobs throughout the week.
“We keep the players hydrated; we keep the volunteers hydrated,” Hazard said.
Volunteers shuttle caddies and pros throughout the week or help with scoring.
“Walking scorers are the link to the course and then to the world,” Hazard said.
The marshals help with crowd control at the holes, keeping people from crossing the ropes and alerting spectators when to be silent by raising their arms in the air when a golfer putts on the green.
Standard bearers follow the golfers on the course. They carry a sign that shows who is playing and their score.
Volunteers also help manage the parking lots.
“The volunteers are very special,” Hazard said. “It’s like summer camp. A lot them are snowbirds who come every year.”
To get involved with the volunteers next year, visit hualalaivolunteers.org.
Steve Stricker, who shot 23-under to win the tournament, thanked Hualālai, Mitsubishi Electric and the volunteers for their work at the tournament.
“It’s unbelievable what you do here,” Stricker said. “There’s no stone unturned. Everything was perfect. All the volunteers, we can’t thank you enough.”
Kona resident Mahlon Whittle, 79 , hae been coming back and forth to the Big Island for the past 15 years before moving here permanently three year ago.
Whittle was turned onto the championship 25 years ago, when he was staying at the resort with his family.
“We were watching the players come in from the 18th green,” he said, adding one of the professional golfers signed a cap and gave it to his 6-year-old son.
Whittle, who is an avid golfer, has been volunteering for the event since he started coming to the island regularly 15 years ago.
“It’s an easy gig,” Whittle said.
Whittle said he originally started volunteering because all volunteers got a free round of golf at Hualālai’s pristine course.
“It’s evolved into something I like to do,” Whittle said. “I meet a lot of really nice people. They’re happy people, and they’re happy to be here.”
Kona resident Colleen Johnson, 84, said she’s been volunteering for at least 10 years, this year doing crowd control.
“You see a lot of people you don’t see often, it’s a beautiful day and you get a free round of golf,” Johnson said.
Two days ago, Johnson said she was up on the green and one of the golfers hit a ball that slid right under her camping chair and stopped.
“We carefully moved my chair and the golfer played the ball,” Johnson said. “That was my excitement for the week.”
John Maynard, 74, from North Vancouver, B.C., has been volunteering for six years at the tournament.
“I love golf,” Maynard said. “I’m very impressed with the golfers’ attitudes toward each and the fans.”
Maynard walked the course with the competitors with a scoreboard that let spectators know who was playing and what their score was.
“I like to walk with the players inside the ropes,” he said. “That’s what’s made it fun for me.”