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A Yen for Yen

Nov. 21, 1994
Nov. 21, 1994

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Nov. 21, 1994

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A Yen for Yen

For PGA Tour washout Brian Watts, the living's not easy in Japan, but the money is

At the end of a second-floor hallway in a hotel hard by the highway in a little town called Tojocho in Japan sat a pile of displaced room furniture. The redecorating was the work of an American golfer, Brian Watts, and his fiancèe, Debbye Zima. Upon checking into their $120-a-night corner room, they had found it so small that it could not accommodate both the furniture and their luggage. The luggage stayed.

This is an article from the Nov. 21, 1994 issue Original Layout

Then there was that streetlight—the one right outside the window that lit up the room like Broadway, even with the blinds closed. As a remedy they had thrown a thick blanket over the blinds. Finally there was all that traffic that seemed to be whooshing by right next to the mattress. That explained the earplugs.

At least Watts knew he would have a clean pair of pants to wear the next day in the second round of the Phillip Morris Championship on the Japanese Professional Golf Association (JPGA) Tour. That had been a major concern earlier in the week when the hotel staff, which included no one who spoke English, conveyed with great difficulty that it had no cleaning services. "But Brian needs pants," Zima had exhorted. Now, that the hotel people understood. They sent the pants off to a cleaner.

Watts and Zima had included a sketch of a pair of pants with the creases running down the front. This was to ensure against a repeat of that time his pants came back creased on the sides—as is the habit of many Japanese cleaners—giving him the cartoonish look of having felt the underside of a steamroller.

The morning would include their usual in-room breakfast: American cold cereal they had brought with them. Watts would have two bowls—the first of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and the second, so as not to have too much sugar jumping through his veins while he stood over a four-foot putt, of Corn Flakes. There would be a $50 taxi ride to the course, and maybe, as at other tournaments, he would have to pay to hit range balls and pony up for a greens fee, too. At the turn he would wolf down the peanut butter crackers he had carted from his home in Oklahoma City.

This, Watts often is reminded, is not the PGA Tour. His remembrances of the one year he scuffled on that yellow brick road include courtesy cars, polished golf shoes, unlimited pearly Titleists on the driving range, free food, free long-distance telephone service and, at the Houston Open, homemade chocolate chip cookies baked by volunteers.

Why then is Brian Watts, who is in a strange land 6,500 miles from home with furniture stacked outside his room and plugs stuffed firmly in his ears, resting so comfortably? Money. Gathered in massive amounts, it is the plushest of pillows.

Watts is a golfing mercenary, a 28-year-old PGA Tour reject who finds the Japanese money too available to pass up, no matter how maddening the language and the accommodations are. Have Titanium driver, will travel, is Watts's motto.

The competition, Watts admits, is inferior. The purses are not. Each of the 38 JPGA events offers between $600,000 and $2 million in prize money. Having won five times this year, Watts has seized $1.28 million of that loot, which makes him the second leading money-winner in Japan. With $1.88 million, Jumbo Ozaki is tops on that tour and in the world in '94. Welcome to the land of the rising sum. Only six players in the world have earned more money in official events than Watts has this year. This is the same player who four times failed to make it out of Q school, most recently two years ago. The one time he did make the Tour, in 1991, he finished 184th on the money list and lost his card.

"The money's so much easier to make here, it's not even funny," says Watts, who has pocketed $1.5 million in his two years on the JPGA. "You can make the cut with two mediocre days, usually with even par. With a decent weekend, you can finish in the top 10. You don't have that luxury in the U.S. You need four solid days. The quality of the field is so different. It's just not that deep."

Watts speaks only a few words of Japanese, rarely samples Japanese cuisine beyond yakitori (barbecued chicken on a stick), curried rice and something called a "mixed sandwich," and says he has virtually no time for exploring the culture outside the O.B. stakes. A serious couch potato who prefers watching tapes of his favorite American shows on his four-inch Sony television to discovering Japan, Watts is simply playing through. When he has enough money for a safety net and when he and Zima, who are to be married next spring, start a family, he'll try the PGA Tour again. That won't happen until 1996 at the earliest. In the meantime Watts will play a few PGA Tour events a year. This year he finished 55th in the British Open, and last year he made the cut in two of the three PGA Tour events he played.

"I hope the greatest things I do are in [the U.S.]," he says. "But I'd rather be doing what I'm doing now than making $100,000 or $200,000 on the PGA Tour and just keeping my card. People don't realize how hard the PGA Tour is. It's tougher than nails. And I want to be certain I'm ready." Says Zima, "He has a bank account here in Japan. He gets paid in yen. And when he likes the exchange rate, he converts it to dollars. Right now it's great. He's definitely liking it."

Two other Americans, David Ishii and Todd Hamilton, are also prospering on the JPGA. The Hawaiian-born Ishii, 39, who has played his entire professional career in Japan and is ranked fifth on the JPGA money list this year, is the only American ever to finish first on that list, which he did in 1987 when he won six tournaments. Hamilton, 29, who has failed to earn a PGA Tour card in five attempts from 1987 to '91, ranks fourth.

"The Americans are hungry, that's why," says Masakazu Takeyama, a writer for the daily Hochi Shimbun, explaining the success of Watts, Ishii and Hamilton. "Maybe Brian Watts is doing so well because he is hungry about winning. Maybe Brian Watts is hungry about money."

Watts wound up in Japan as an afterthought and because he played some mediocre golf. Having won the 1987 NCAA championship as a senior at Oklahoma State, Watts didn't make it out of the PGA Tour qualifying school in '88 or '89.

"My career hasn't at all gone like I thought it would," he acknowledges. "Coming out of college I was expecting to go right out and make a success on the PGA Tour. I never anticipated having to go through all this."

He finally qualified for the Tour on his third try, but recalls that "my game was deteriorating just when I finally made it to the Tour." After that 184th-place finish in 1991, Watts played poorly on the Hogan Tour in 1992 and flunked Q school again that fall.

"I didn't know what direction I'd take in my life," he says. "I didn't touch a club for two months. Then my friend E.J. Pfister talked me into going to Asia."

Watts won the first event he played on the Asian Tour, the Hong Kong Open in February 1993, and went on to finish first on that tour's money list, a distinction that entitled him to an automatic 12-month exemption into the JPGA Tour.

"Going to Asia, I had no idea of the exemption," he says. "I had hardly heard of the Japanese tour. But when they said, 'Do you want to play for $1 million a week?' I didn't have to think hard about that. I said, 'Heck, yeah. It'll beat playing the piddly state opens I would have gone back to in the States.' "

A typical 144-man field in a JPGA event includes only 20 to 25 non-Japanese players. Yasuhiro Yamamoto, a JPGA spokesman, says, "We're trying to allow more players from the States. We'd like to see it become borderless between the U.S. and Japanese tours."

"They won't allow that. It's a very closed door," Watts says, noting that the Japanese require almost all nonexempt foreigners to endure a six-stage qualifying school. "You won't see a lot of Americans following me here. First of all, 80 to 90 percent of them couldn't take it here. They wouldn't last a week with all the things you have to put up with."

Besides coping with unusual dry cleaning, Watts says an American golfer in Japan must dole out $4,000 a week in expenses (not including airfare), make his own yardage book each week, struggle with the language and cuisine (though his paunch suggests little difficulty on that count) and endure hotel rooms that "are like holes with four walls, because that's all you can get in Japan's countryside. There's no entertainment anywhere."

Watts usually cuts out for home every four or five weeks, and he admits that what he misses most while in Japan is that sophisticated instrument of high culture, the remote control. "Channel surfing and ESPN," says the television-tuber, describing his life in the States. Most nights in Oklahoma City he is rooted to his favorite fat chair well past midnight—wearing only underwear and holding on tight to the clicker.

His travels in Japan are made more bearable by Sunday nights when, before hitting the JPGA's next outpost, he and Zima rent a $300-a-night hotel room in Tokyo or Osaka, where they can find Mexican or American food, a coin-operated laundromat and CNN.

For Watts, even the time on the course can be vexing. He usually gets little help from his caddies, who most often are female house caddies who wear white bonnets and white gloves, each dragging a golf bag in something that looks like a wire shopping cart, replete with a dangling old can that holds cleaning tools. "They don't speak English," Watts says.

Then there are the Japanese galleries, which test Watts's concentration though they are a fraction of the size of the masses on the PGA Tour. In that second round of the Phillip Morris Championship, Watts played in a threesome with Jumbo Ozaki and Tommy Nakajima, two of the country's most popular golfers. Whenever the two Japanese putted out ahead of Watts, the fans would scurry to the next tee, not caring to see Watts finish the hole. No one called his name through 18 holes. The only Westerner in the crowd was Zima.

On the 6th hole, after Watts two-putted from 20 feet for par, he glared icily at someone. Why? "I heard a camera click, and it bothered me," he says. "You have to deal with things here that you don't see on the U.S. Tour: people walking, plastic bags rustling, babies crying. I'm learning to blow that stuff off. It's made me concentrate harder."

Despite the photographic intrusion, Watts shot 66 on the par-72, 7,176-yard ABC Golf Club course. He reached the first 14 greens in regulation and turned half of those opportunities into birdies. Afterward, when an American journalist asked what part of his game had improved most since his Stateside failures, Watts snarled, "Everything," and left it at that.

A small group of Japanese journalists then approached him and, through an interpreter, inquired how he enjoyed playing with Ozaki. The interpreter was not especially fluent in English and, in an obvious struggle with the language, framed the query in the form of a statement. "So what's the question?" Watts snapped. "Do you have a question? If you have a question, I'll be happy to answer it."

Watts-san doesn't have a nickname yet, but if he keeps up such dim behavior, "25 Watts" would be appropriate. He describes himself as having "always been a quiet type" and says of his reticence, "I was even worse in high school." He proposed to Zima, a former flight attendant, in his car in the parking lot of a franchised steakhouse.

At least his game is gaining polish. Coming from two shots back on the final day, Watts won the Phillip Morris Championship—and $360,000—with a 68 that gave him a 12-under-par 266 for the four-day tournament. It was the second consecutive victory for Watts, who had taken the Bridgestone Open and its $216,000 top prize the previous week playing against a field that included Nick Price.

"Being in contention a lot is a great learning experience," Watts says. "You have to learn how to win. There's a big difference between playing for first place on Sunday and trying to move up from 30th place to 10th place."

How good is Watts? Tested only by shallow competition, even he admits he doesn't know. He says he has "no idea" where he would rank after another crack at the PGA Tour but adds, "I don't think I'd have any trouble keeping my Tour card." The answer will come only after he has converted enough yen to dollars—"as soon as he make's enough money where he can go back and not feel the pressure of having to win," Zima says. "After a while, money is not everything. To play in front of his family and friends, the big crowds, being on TV...he wants that."

For now, with such ambitions sated by Japan's easy money, Watts finds himself yearning for a decidedly more plebeian pursuit: "To sit around and not have to get up at a certain hour," he says. "I really miss the TV. Having 40 channels on TV; that's what I really miss."

PHOTOPHOTOBOB MARTINWatts made his breakthrough at the '93 Hong Kong Open (right), which was a bridge to big money.PHOTOSTEVE MUNDAY/ALLSPORT[See caption above.]THREE PHOTOSBOB MARTINWatts and Zima enjoy forays into Tokyo, where they can get things done their way, whether at the Hard Rock or the laundromat.PHOTODOUG HOKEBlackhawk fan Watts collects mementos of his feats and those of other Oklahoma State alums.PHOTOBOB MARTINWatts has to make his own yardage books in practice rounds such as this one in Chiba, Japan.PHOTOSTEVE MUNDAY/ALLSPORTWatts has found greater glory in the Far East than in the Southwest.