Sunday, January 9, 2011

End of an era

Today, for the 42nd and probably last time, Gary Planos will stand below the Plantation Course clubhouse at the first tee and watch 32 of the best golfers in the world start their rounds.

It marks the end of an era on the Northwest tip of Maui.

For 27 years, the last 12 before this one as tournament chairman of the event now known as the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Planos, this year a consultant and tournament host, has been Mr. Kapalua, an ambassador of the butterfly-with-the-pineapple-in-it logo.

Next year, he says, that won't be the case.

"It has been an emotional week," Planos said Saturday.

Downsizing - Kapalua has closed one golf course and sold its two others - has cost Planos his job as vice president in charge of marketing, since the resort is no longer in the golf business. With the end of that role comes the conclusion of his tournament chairmanship as well.

Planos started at Kapalua in 1975 as a bag boy who made $3 an hour. He left soon after to become an assistant professional at Kaanapali, where he served his three-year apprenticeship, then worked at the Wailea Blue Course as a teaching professional.

Mark Rolfing, now an analyst for The Golf Channel and NBC Sports, hired Planos back at Kapalua in 1984 as an assistant pro when Rolfing was Kapalua's director of marketing.

Planos has been there ever since.

"I'm finishing, this week, over 27 years at Kapalua," Planos said.

Planos became tournament director for the Kapalua International in 1991, basically the second in command behind Rolfing, the tournament chairman, and stayed in that capacity with that unofficial event until 1999, then became tournament chairman of the Mercedes Championships, the official opener on the PGA Tour that has a winners-only field.

Since August, he has been a consultant for the event - there is no tournament chairman this year.

"I have had many titles," Planos said. "I think I counted and I have had 10 titles here. My last one was senior vice president of resort operations since 2004."

Planos explained: "The things I was responsible for have gone in different directions. They have outsourced most of the resort operations, we have sold the golf courses and we have gotten kind of out of the tournament business. It has been a great run, a fabulous run here."

Rolfing said he would like to have Planos back next year.

"It is hard to imagine Kapalua without Gary Planos," said Rolfing, who calls himself the tournament organizer this year. "First of all, I hope it is not Gary's last year. I have told him that he obviously is welcome to come back any year and I hope he does. I would be really disappointed if he wasn't on this first tee next year, but who knows what is ahead for Gary? I'm sure it is something good. It is just, he has been an icon with this thing for so long that it doesn't seem possible to me that he wouldn't be here."

The Mark and Debi Rolfing Charitable Foundation is the charitable arm of this week's tournament.

Rolfing said Kapalua might never have hosted a PGA Tour event if not for Planos.

"He had a lot to do with it, there is no doubt," Rolfing said. "He is the guy that everybody turns to, even now. People will ask me certain questions and to do certain things, but everybody universally, no matter what the question is or what they want or where they want to go, the first guy they are going to go to is Gary because he has always been that guy."

Nancy Cross, who has been at Kapalua since 1982, is the tournament director this year, a job she has also had in the past.

"We have worked very closely for many, many years," Cross said.

Cross was hired back for her current position by Rolfing after she and Planos were let go by Kapalua Land Company when its events department was eliminated in a cost-cutting move. Her contract runs through March.

"It is hard to imagine, it is hard to acknowledge all of the changes going on, but that is the way the world is today," Cross said with tears coming to her eyes. "Time goes on and things change, people adjust. On a personal note, Gary has been such an integral part of golf and tournaments, that, sure, it is difficult to imagine. He has been a great mentor to me. He has been a great role model in how to lead a team.

"He has shown us the importance in building relationships and I think you can see that in how well-respected he is. He has done a great job of branding Kapalua and golf. He always wanted to see people get greater responsibility and always shared the credit. Not a lot of people do that."

Cross added that Planos has a work ethic that doesn't stop.

"He has definitely been the ambassador of the brand and I think people definitely relate Gary and Kapalua in the same sentence," Cross said. "I think for a lot of people it is hard to think about Kapalua without Gary. I know whatever he does he will be very successful. In the world of golf, he knows everyone and is well-respected by everyone."

Planos is also the chairman of the Western Golf Association and host of the former Western Open that is now known as the BMW Championship.

Jon Brendle, a PGA Tour rules official, has worked with Planos for all 13 of the tour events on Maui, and through the Western Golf Association.

"We have had a continuous relationship and I think we talk two or three times a week," Brendle said. "It is pretty emotionally sad. ... It is sad to think where Kapalua has gone. I do this every week, I have been doing this for 22 years now. Nobody does it better. I know all the tournaments and nobody does it better as a tournament director than Gary Planos. His image, the prestige of the way he does it, the style that he does could not be more teachable to people to do it that way.

"I am from the South and we have a camaraderie, but you guys here have that aloha spirit. Nobody exemplifies that more than Gary and Nancy. For the tour, they do it to the highest level that could be reached. For me to believe that it is gone is hard to believe. You just will never believe that something like this has happened."

Brendle said he is always running into Planos' proteges throughout the tour and sees Planos' mark in another way as well.

"I go to tournaments every week and there are three logos you see every week - you'd see the U.S. Open logo of some year, you'd see The Masters logo, and you'd see the Kapalua butterfly," Brendle said. "You can guarantee that at every tournament. That is because of Gary. And you all aren't that big. You know everybody, you are all friends, so for it to be as worldwide as that butterfly is is a total tribute to how important Gary Planos has been to this resort. This is Gary."

Hale Irwin wore the Kapalua logo for more than 20 years as the resort's touring pro.

"I remember traveling to Medinah in 1990 and having dinner with Hale," Planos said. "Landing that Sunday at Kapalua airport the bag porter told me that Hale had finished in a tie and that there would be a playoff tomorrow. I walked into my office the next day, it was at the Bay Course, and when Hale won the playoff (over Mike Donald) the phone calls started coming in from all over the world congratulating us about Hale's third U.S. Open victory.

"I remember walking Greyhawk with Barry Lane when he was our European touring pro and having him win the million dollar Andersen World Championship and having dinner with him and him saying, 'I just won a million dollars.'

"And then a real fun moment was Morgan (Pressel) making the putt off the fringe at 18 (at the Bay Course in 2008) for birdie to win the only Kapalua LPGA Classic. To have a hand in Morgan being our (LPGA) touring pro and for her to win our event made me look smart for a day."

The lasting legacy for Planos will be the PGA Tour event at the Plantation, which he helped open in 1991. He said his most significant memory on the expansive 7,411-yard layout - the only par-73 course on tour - is the epic finish in 2000 when Ernie Els and Tiger Woods, playing together in the final group, finished birdie-eagle and then both birdied the 663-yard 18th on the first playoff hole before Woods sank a 40-footer on No. 1 to win.

"A lot of great memories here, but I remember sitting there with Brendle - that was the year we decided to drive the M Class cars up (to 18 for the playoff), great exposure for Mercedes, and I remember driving up there with Tiger and Ernie," Planos said. "Jon wanted me to hand out the numbers, 1 or 2, but there was confusion on the tee as to how they were marshaling and I was trying to work with the volunteers, so I never got to do that. While we watched the tee shots it was evident that Tiger striped it and Ernie looked like he popped it up. I thought there was no way Ernie could get home, but Ernie got up there and ripped a 3-wood from 300-plus yards and got it home. It was unbelievable. I couldn't believe how far he hit that 3-wood. Tiger made a 40-footer to win on 1, something you never make. That was what really put the Plantation Course on the map.

"The excitement. That was the highest-rated ESPN golf telecast at that time. Mercedes was just thrilled with that. That was very memorable."

Planos owns the only house on the Bay Course and said he will always be at Kapalua in some way. He also said he is not ready to give up holding a full-time job in golf.

"I need to for my mind," he said. "I want to find something that is as challenging as what I've had. I'm a type-A workaholic and I am looking forward to another challenge wherever it is. For the first time in my life, I am looking to move where that next challenge will be."

Planos said he has attended eight or nine tour events per year.

"I have a ton of (airline) miles," he said. "We definitely helped position the brand of Kapalua in the world of golf and we are very happy with where that brand has gone."

Planos grew up in Evanston, Ill., and moved to Maui after graduating from the University of Illinois. Kapalua, however, will always be home, and Planos said he will never forget all the time he has put in at the place.

"You do something seven days a week for 27 years, that is a lot of time," he said. "But it wasn't a job. It wasn't work - it was what I did and I enjoyed it."

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