By Ken MacLeod
For those planning to attend or watch the 2021 KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship at Southern Hills, you may have seen clips of the personable Ken Tanigawa in Tulsa to promote the event.
He played Southern Hills with director of golf Cary Cozby and two prominent members. He visited various locations downtown and the local Whirlpool plant, parent company of sponsor KitchenAid.
He made friends everywhere he went.
Tanigawa has done the same on the Champions Tour since making his debut in 2018, and then winning the Senior PGA Championship in 2019 to come in to Tulsa as defending champion since the event was cancelled in 2020.
He seems perfectly well accepted, respected and liked by his peers, which is a testament to him. Because technically, especially in regards to the Champions Tour, he represents exactly what most of the players on the senior circuit don’t want and what the tour officials have made nearly impossible to achieve, an outsider with virtually no PGA Tour experience coming in and succeeding.
Champions Tour players regard the circuit as a reward for those who have labored long and hard to build up the brand of the PGA Tour. Administrators prefer the exempt spots go to players who have done the same, particularly those with the brand to move the ticket and television viewing needles.
Tanigawa had done neither of those when he entered qualifying school in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2017. The tour only makes five spots available at Q School and most of those wind up going to PGA Tour veterans without sufficient career earnings to be exempt.
Tanigawa came in as perhaps Arizona’s top amateur, having won the Arizona State Amateur Championship in 2015 and 2017 while finishing runnerup in 2016. He was also the state Mid-Amateur champion in 2014 and 2015. He was a semi-retired successful businessman content with his life and amateur career, but also knew he had unfulfilled goals as a professional.
For 11 years he had labored without winning on various tours in Australia and Asia before playing one season on the Web.com Tour in 2003, where he missed 18 of 22 cuts and in frustration applied to regain his amateur status.
But it wasn’t just the AGA victories that gave him the confidence to reenter the professional world. Without the stress of playing for a living, his game was improving dramatically, which he could tell with the success he was having in regular games at his home course Whisper Rock against a membership roster that includes Paul Casey, Chez Reavie, Kevin Chappell, Bryce Molder, Martin Kaymer, Geoff Oglivy and Kevin Streelman.
“There’s got to be 20 guys that play out of there as professionals and playing with them can only make you better,” Tanigawa said.
Tanigawa played collegiately at UCLA with current Champions Tour regulars Scott McCarron and Oak Tree National member Brandt Jobe. McCarron knew what to expect if he earned his status, telling PGATour.com that if he achieved full status, he would start winning immediately.
First, there was the matter of earning his exempt status, which he did by tying for fourth at the finals. Then he proved McCarron correct, winning the Pure Insurance Championship in his rookie season of 2018 and finishing 30th on the money list. He backed that up with the Senior PGA Championship in 2019 and shot up to 15th in the rankings. He is currently ranked 56th in the 2020-21 wraparound season.
In his mid 40s, Tanigawa was content to be a successful businessman, with his Japan based company manufacturing private label collections for big department stores. He sold that and was able to spend more time with his family and playing golf. That’s when the amateur victories started to mount and the thought of becoming a touring pro again began to creep in.
“What led to this was getting away from the game and having a whole different perspective from the touring years,” Tanigawa said. “You learn to enjoy it again and love it for what it was. At the end of the day when you’re an amateur, it doesn’t really matter, it’s just an expensive hobby. When I was a professional, I found it hard to separate how I was playing from how I evaluated my own self worth.
“This time it’s important to keep that perspective. I want to be true to myself and stay that amateur golfer at heart.”
Tickets for the 2021 Senior PGA Championship are on sale now at www.srpga.com.