Indirectness is a Japanese virtue. I asked an executive with a
Japanese rubber company how his country's economic problems had
affected golf in Japan. Through an interpreter, the executive
responded that there were black pines on his course that were
275 years old.
I asked Jumbo Ozaki, the 50-year-old icon of Japanese golf, if
he had suffered financially when real estate values collapsed in
the early '90s. He replied that wine collecting absorbed his
attention these days.
The word inscrutable is in disrepute, so I must look for a
metaphor to describe the Japanese flair for going round:
sunlight refracted by water, perhaps.
On a sunny afternoon in Miyazaki on the subtropical island of
Kyushu, about 530 miles southwest of Tokyo, I approached the 1st
tee of the Phoenix Country Club, site of last month's Japan PGA
Dunlop Phoenix. Poinsettias framed the tee box in holiday red,
and smoke rose from an incense burner. Only it was not an
incense burner, it turned out. It was an ashtray filled with
smoldering cigarette butts.
The Japanese Professional Golfers Association is instantly
recognizable to any American golfer over the age of, say, 45. It
is the U.S. PGA Tour, circa 1973. There's an umbrella
organization serving the needs of club professionals and a
Tournament Players Division that conducts tournaments. The top
60 money winners keep their tour cards at the end of a 10-month
season comprising 36 events. Tournament winners pose for photos
with four-foot-wide cardboard checks. You almost expect a young
Tom Weiskopf to drive up the clubhouse circle in a Thunderbird
The Japan tour looks the way it does because it was founded in
1973 and because it relied on the advice of two American
consultants: former PGA executive Jack Tuthill and golf promoter
John Montgomery Sr. The JPGA mimics the American model in
virtually every respect, from gallery roping to scoreboards to
player lounges. The only startling variance is the presence of
bonneted female caddies who, before leaving a green, bow to
players waiting in the fairway.
But mostly the Japan tour belongs to the Japanese. Young
Americans, Europeans, Australians and South Africans who would
like a crack at Japanese purses of up to $1.6 million face
daunting obstacles. For one thing, the JPGA qualifying
tournament, held every November, is closed to foreigners. That
leaves only a few side-door openings. The top money winner on
the Asian tour, for instance, can get a JPGA card. (Paraguay's
Carlos Franco took this route and since 1995 has won four
Japanese tournaments.) There is also the
smart-bomb-down-the-chimney approach taken last year by 16-year
European tour veteran Peter Teravainen. Having filled out a
Japan Open application on a whim, the Singapore-based American
actually got invited--he was the only European tour player to
apply--and then won the tournament, earning him a JPGA card good
for 10 years. "I was getting ready to retire to the Omega tour
[a rival to the Asian tour]," Teravainen said on the practice
range at last month's Sumitomo Visa Taiheiyo Masters while
staring at a cloud-capped Mount Fuji. "Instead I've won two more
tournaments and cashed the biggest checks of my career."
Another deterrent is the minimum event policy, which has
required members to play in at least 16 JPGA events. "There are
too many obstacles for international players to qualify," says
H. (Andy) Yamanaka, a boyish-looking executive with Dunlop
Sports International. "That has to change."
Yamanaka was one of the few blunt speakers I encountered in
Japan. "I probably shouldn't be saying this," he said one night,
craning his neck to catch the reaction of Japan tour chairman
Fujio Ishii, who quietly sipped tea at the other end of a long
table, "but this tour has to open up to survive. For one thing,
the prize money is way too high for the quality of play. If a
player wins one tournament he can buy a Mercedes, get a nice
apartment and have a couple of girlfriends. He has no incentive
to leave Japan and test himself against better players." Having
issued this burst of candor in English, Yamanaka repeated his
remarks in fluent Korean for the benefit of a journalist from
Seoul, and finally in Japanese, which caused Mr. Ishii to lower
his teacup and listen intently.
In a Japanese sports newspaper I spied a photograph of a very
senior golfer swinging his driver. "He is what we call a
kan-reki. It means 'return calendar,'" said my friend Duke
Ishikawa, who lives in a Tokyo suburb and travels the world
writing about golf. The Chinese and Japanese calendar, he
explained, has a 12-year cycle--Year of the Dog, Year of the
Rat, etc.--and one's 60th birthday marks the completion of five
cycles. "In old times, wars and disease made living to 60 a rare
thing, so the kan-reki is treated as someone special, someone
reborn. This kan-reki, Sugihara-san, is very special because he
still plays on our tour."
I followed Teruo Sugihara during the Taiheiyo Masters. A short
man in fawn-colored slacks and sweater, he played the hilly
Gotemba course with high, short drives and long-iron approaches.
"Sugihara is what we call a shoku-nin," said Ricky Matsamura of
Dunlop. For a moment I thought Sugihara had had another
birthday, but Matsamura explained that a shoku-nin is a
technician, a finesse player. A legendary putter, Sugihara
showed in the pro-am how he had won 61 JPGA events. While the
following group hit to the front of a green, Sugihara
practice-putted three balls to spots on the back, working so
quickly that all three balls were rolling at once. "He puts on a
clinic every time he strokes the ball," an American player told
me, "and the galleries love him."
A week later, at the Dunlop Phoenix, I arranged a little talk
with Sugihara. The meeting place was a tee box, where I found
him swinging a driver, surrounded by a still photographer, two
assistants holding reflectors, a man with a tape recorder and a
young woman producer. "It's going to be a 14-page instruction
feature for Japan Golf Digest," said Matsamura, who had agreed
to be my interpreter.
Sugihara turned out to be a man of warmth and
humility--qualities gained in his youth, when Japan's golf
landscape was bleak. "I was eight when the Second World War was
finished," he said, standing with no sign of weariness after
eight hours on his feet. "Most of the golf courses had become
farms and airfields, and the ones that remained were played only
by the very wealthy." Sugihara's father was a tenant farmer in
Osaka. Golf entered the picture when his father took a job as a
greenkeeper. "I found lost balls behind the trees," Sugihara
said, smiling at the memory. "I made a hole and played with a
Like most of the pros of his generation, Sugihara started as a
caddie and learned the game by osmosis. "When I turned pro in
1955, there were only six tournaments and maybe 150
professionals. You survived by giving lessons and by winning
money from the club members."
Matsamura leaned toward me and said, "I think he still wins
money from the members." He looked at Sugihara and both men
There's one totem of the U.S. Tour that seems particularly
un-Japanese: the big cardboard winner's check. Usually, when the
Japanese exchange money with people they know, they discreetly
put cash in an envelope. (It's not necessary to open the
envelope to know that the amount is correct.) Prize money, being
more substantial, is wired to the player's bank account--minus
10% for JPGA administration costs, which until a few years ago
were paid by tournament sponsors. Only the winner is spared this
The Japanese economy rides a boom-and-bust cycle reminiscent of
the U.S.'s in the late 19th century, the era of the Robber
Barons. The day Tom Watson flew out of Japan, richer by $286,000
for winning the Dunlop Phoenix, newspaper headlines screamed the
news that one of its Big Four securities firms, Yamaichi
Securities, had collapsed. On television, panelists fretted over
sokaiya scandals (secret corporate payoffs to extortionists) and
Asian currency crises. The country is still reeling from the
collapse, in the early '90s, of its Bubble Economy--the ruinous
overvaluation of real estate and security assets that made Japan
a swindler's paradise.
The Bubble Economy shaped Japanese golf as surely as American
course designers like Michael Poellot and Robert Trent Jones Jr.
shaped its $200 million courses. Private club memberships, which
are bought and sold like stocks, soared as high as $3 million
each in the late '80s--and the member still had to pay a greens
fee of as much as $100 every time he played.
"People have lost a lot of money on golf," Ishikawa told me
during a round at Tokyo's elegant Glen Oaks Country Club. "The
three-million-dollar membership is now worth one million."
Not that it shows. The clubhouse at Glen Oaks, like most of
those in Japan, is large and luxurious. The lockers are of
polished wood, the hot-bath pools of resort quality. On the
manicured course female caddies walk the hills aside robot
trolleys that carry up to three bags over buried lines.
Similarly, the Japan tour presents an untroubled face. Its
tournament courses are meticulously groomed and challenging, its
grandstands are filled on weekends. It's the gaps in the family
picture that hint at the truth. The JPGA Senior tour has shrunk
from 23 events to six, as land brokers and development companies
have dropped out as sponsors. The regular tour is more
stable--only one tournament is threatened with extinction next
season--but prize money has frozen at 1990 levels, and sponsors
no longer pay huge appearance fees to foreign superstars. At the
Dunlop Phoenix the 18 foreign players received $10,000 each for
airfare and a hotel room. Nobody got six figures to play in a
Tuesday skins game, as of old. "Miyazaki is a small city," says
Pete Wakimoto, press officer for three of the JPGA's richest
events. "Even if we sold three times as many tickets, we
couldn't afford a million dollars for Tiger Woods."
On the other hand, the Dunlop Phoenix had deep enough pockets
for a tournament gala that packed a giant ballroom for dinner
and a show, and foreign journalists were treated to a daily
pressroom buffet of sashimi, tempura, chicken and pork katsus,
noodle soups and hors d'oeuvres served in ceramic boats on
lacquered trays. "We hope you will come again," Wakimoto-san
said. His real worry was getting us to leave.
In Asakusa, one of Tokyo's oldest downtown neighborhoods,
there's a large temple that attracts thousands of visitors a
day. They walk under giant red lanterns, fan incense smoke
toward their nostrils and gaze through a wire barrier at a giant
Buddha. Many also pick up a steel cylinder and shake it until an
omi-kuji stick falls from a hole in the bottom. A number on the
stick directs one to a particular pigeonhole, where a preprinted
I thought about the temple fortunes after talking with a few of
the Japan tour's younger players. They seem to have been
selected by the fates, shaken out onto golf courses for no
"I guess it's surprising that we can play at all," says Taichi
Teshima, a 29-year-old tour player from Kyushu, Japan's
third-largest and southernmost island. "Golf courses charge full
price for children, so only rich kids get to play. And kids like
me. My father owned a driving range."
Teshima, who learned to speak colloquial English while playing
golf at East Tennessee State, had to pass six stages to qualify
for the Japan tour. Survivors of the first three stages of
competition get to call themselves pros. Success at the next two
levels gets one onto Japan's Growing tour, which is analogous to
our Nike tour. Finally, if successful at the Q school, the
player gets a one-year tour card. However, failure to crack the
top 60 results in a demotion to the Growing tour. Fail there and
it's back to square four.
"The old U.S. Tour kept the top 60," says Teravainen, "but the
next 65 could still get in tournaments through Monday
qualifying. This is more brutal. For number 61, it's Q school."
The slope is also greased by a prize-money system, which showers
most of the loot on the winner and a few top places. To keep his
card, a young player might have to win a tournament and finish
very high in several others. Top 15s don't count for much in
Japan. "The breakdown is wicked, but it keeps players hungry,"
says Teravainen. "Everyone is trying to win."
The best of the young guns--players like the high-spirited
Shigeki Maruyama, who rode the PGA leader board for four days in
August at Winged Foot, or Hidemichi Tanaka, who consistently
outdrove most U.S. pros at the '96 British Open--seem unafraid
of foreign competition. Many hope to follow the example of Isao
Aoki, who took Japanese golf to its greatest heights by winning
the '78 World Match Play in England, by going head-to-head with
Jack Nicklaus and finishing second at the '80 U.S. Open and,
finally, by winning the 1983 Hawaiian Open with an eagle on the
72nd hole. (Aoki remains the only player from Japan to win in
the U.S.) Now 55, Aoki has won seven tournaments on the U.S.
Senior tour and finished third on its 1997 money list.
Most Japanese players recognize that Aoki paid a high price to
pursue his global goals. In some years he played more than 40
tournaments and dozens of outings and exhibitions--leaving no
time for outside interests or, for that matter, a life. Other
players wonder if they can cope with the West's lone-wolf
approach to the game. In Japan young professionals join training
clubs called gundans, which are led by older, more established
golfers. Maruyama, for example, was a member of Ozaki's gundan
and regularly spent January and February with the master at
something resembling a baseball spring training camp. Gundan
players practice, exercise and eat as a group, and it's not
unusual to see one team member caddying for another. "Some
players depend too much on the gundan," a Japanese writer told
me. "Without support, without Japanese-speaking friends and
familiar food, they become homesick and play badly."
Finally, there are the doubts raised by the flight of the ball
itself. Japan tour players compete on kikuyu-grass fairways,
which prop up the ball on an inviting pillow of turf. The good
lies, the generally mild winds of Japan and the soft greens
practically compel the Japanese to play a long-flying two-piece
ball and strike it with a sweeping rather than a descending
blow. Unfortunately, that swing-and-ball combination doesn't
work as well in Scotland's gales, and Japanese players struggle
with tight lies on America's bent-grass fairways. Tommy
Nakajima, who won 56 JPGA events, tried to add a "Western swing"
to his arsenal and wound up with no game at all. He hasn't won a
tournament in either hemisphere since 1995.
In my head I keep replaying the words of the kan-reki, Sugihara.
His longest and most thoughtful answer had come when I asked him
about Japan's young players. "As I'm getting older, I'm more
like a father," he said, "but I'm still a competitor, so I try
not to argue with them like father and son."
Argue about what? I asked.
"I have complaints," he said. "I feel that they must be more
professional. They must respect the gallery and the sponsors.
They must respect the golf course. They should not be dropping
cigarettes everywhere." I smiled at that. In two weeks I had not
seen so much as a candy wrapper in a fairway.
My interpreter interjected that Sugihara's criticism wasn't
meant for just the young players. "Jumbo's attitude is, 'If I'm
not here, there's no tournament.' Sugihara-san doesn't like that
sort of thing."
Nodding, the old man said, "All things have a history--Japan,
golf, everything. But the young players don't know the back
story. They don't win with gratitude." His eyes locked on mine.
"Please write this in your story. I want the Japanese golfer to
know why he can have this way of life."
I promised that I would. Then I thanked him and walked toward
the clubhouse, passing the 1st tee and that peculiar ashtray.
Smoke still rose from it, as from a recently doused tiki torch.
Only this time I saw it in a very different light--as a symbol
of respect and order.