“I had been assigned to the 10th tee, but the crowds were huge that Sunday, so after the last group teed off on 10 I was told to go over to the 18th green for crowd control,” Don recalls of the enthusiastic galleries that had reached “four-, five-, six-people deep. This was in the days before sky boxes surrounded the 18th green.”
Jack Renner had just birdied the 562-yard, par-5 18th hole – for a round of 66, a tournament total of 19 under par, and a one-stroke lead over Isao Aoki, who was playing in the group behind Renner. With a birdie of his own, Aoki would force a playoff.
As Renner, in his white Ben Hogan-style cap, headed to the scorer’s tent to sign his scorecard looking like a sure winner, Aoki stood over his ball in the left rough where his second shot had come to rest. Make that the thick, wiry Bermuda rough.
The legendary Vin Scully was doing the national television broadcast.
“Aoki with one slim chance,” he intoned as the Japanese golfer readied his pitching wedge from 128 yards out.
“I’m not sure he could see all the green from where he was,” says Don, who was kneeling on the grass at the left edge of the 18th green, his Quiet Please marshal’s paddle in hand. “I know I couldn’t see him because of the crowd. Someone said the ball was in the air, so I looked up into the blue sky to find the ball, and I was still looking up when I heard someone yell, ‘It’s in the hole!’ The crowd went nuts, and that’s when I knew I missed it.”
“That’s impossible,” Scully hollered on the broadcast (a snippet of which can be found on YouTube). “I don’t believe it. What a finish! That’s one of the most memorable shots in golf history!”
“It was like people had seen a miracle,” Don remembers. “I don’t think if they had just seen Jesus turn water into wine they would have been more surprised. Those quirky golf gods provided a miracle.”
Aoki was jubilant in celebration. He jumped up and down as he ran up the fairway, his smile as bright as the Hawaiian skies that Sunday afternoon.
But the miraculous shot also is remembered for Renner’s catatonic reaction. As Don recalls, Renner’s knees seemed to buckle and all he could do was stare blankly at the ground.
“Jack Renner keeps his head down,” Scully reported over the airwaves, as TV fans watched the juxtaposition of Renner’s stunned disappointment with Aoki’s unbridled jubilation.
“It’s crazy, but golf is a crazy game,” Don says, “and the golf gods who snatched away Renner’s victory gave him a ‘makeup call’ the next year and rewarded him with the Hawaiian Open trophy. Call it karmic justice. Which is rare in golf.”
Aoki finished the historic event with an eagle three and a final score of 20 under par, becoming the first Japanese pro to win on the PGA Tour. Despite earning 77 professional victories around the globe during his brilliant career, he never won another PGA event. But his place in history was secured. He was named to the World Golf Hall of Fame 21 years later, in 2004. He’s retired now, at age 70, and living in Japan.
Renner, meanwhile, won three times during his time on the PGA Tour in the ’70s and ’80s, but his victory in the 1984 Hawaiian Open – beating Wayne Levi in a playoff – would be his last. After playing briefly on the Senior/Champions Tour, he’s retired now and living in Palm Springs.
The Hawaiian Open eventually became the Sony Open in Hawaii, and it takes place this week at Waialae Country Club.
Vin Scully retired from announcing golf, but still serves as the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers at the age of 85. He recently signed on for his 64th year of broadcasting.
Don would write for national golf magazines, publish several books and become editor-in-chief of MidWeek. And that day remains memorable.
“I was as close to the hole as anyone – 30 feet or less – and I still missed seeing the shot go in,” he says now, laughing. “I’ve seen a lot of amazing things over the years, but this was the greatest shot I never saw. At least I can say I was there, and it was still a chicken-skin moment.”
It’s a moment that remains special for Hawaii golf fans, who know miracles can happen any time.
Post-script: Longtime Hawaiian Open/Sony Open press chief Bill Bachran recalls he was in charge of printing up the oversize winner’s presentation check each year, and since the tournament was to finish Feb. 13, the day before Valentine’s Day, he had the check made in the shape of a heart. As it turned out, when Aoki won it was already Feb. 14 in Japan – yes, Valentine’s Day. Aoki earning a check in the shape of a heart on what was Valentine’s Day in Japan made news all around the world.
Oh, and Bill also missed Aoki’s winning shot – he was on his way to grab the check when he heard the roar of the crowd.