A Giant In Japan In his homeland Jumbo Ozaki is the undisputed king of golf. So why can't he get respect anywhere else?

April 06, 1998
April 06, 1998

Table of Contents
April 6, 1998

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A Giant In Japan In his homeland Jumbo Ozaki is the undisputed king of golf. So why can't he get respect anywhere else?

Today, Jumbo's legs are wrapped in green baize. His tailor must
have stripped a pool table for the cloth. Jumbo's sweater comes
to the Dunlop Phoenix here in Kyushu, Japan, by way of Las
Vegas. Swirls of aqua and silver on black cashmere suggest
peacock feathers against a night sky.

This is an article from the April 6, 1998 issue Original Layout

Jumbo's gallery is two or three thousand strong, lining the
fairway and treading on pine needles, a silent army in the
trees. Jumbo's ball rests on a white tee, a good four inches off
the sweet green turf.

Jumbo's cigarette touches his lips. When he exhales, smoke
plumes past his bold sideburns and unblinking eyes. Jumbo's
caddie stands by, holding a leather pouch of sand. He will douse
the cigarette when Jumbo is ready. Jumbo's tight-lipped smile
suggests boredom. Or menace.

Here, in Japan, Jumbo is huge. He is the rising sun on the white
flag. His feet leave permanent footprints. His muttered jokes
bring smiles to spectators 400 yards away, as if transmitted
over the gallery ropes.

He is ichiban (No. 1). Here, in Japan.

Out there, it's different. The golfer from Australia, the
so-called Shark, thinks Ozaki-san is a cheat. Players in Europe
whisper that Jumbo uses illegal equipment. The Americans sneer
at his World Ranking, which is 10th despite his age, 51, and at
his reluctance to play much outside Asia. Visitors to Japan eat
up rumors that Jumbo is a member or fellow traveler of the
yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

"If I can get my hands on one of his golf balls, I bet I can
sell it back to him for a bundle," says an American caddie.
"Everybody says he uses a hot ball."

"What's he ever won?" asks an American sportswriter. "The Osaka
Seaweed Invitational?"

"No way is Jumbo better than Mark O'Meara or Steve Elkington...!" says an American pro fighting to keep his PGA Tour card.

Have they actually seen him play? Not exactly. A swing or two at
the Masters. On the range at the British Open. What matters is
the record, and the record shows that Jumbo Ozaki has never won
a major championship. Never even threatened. But here, in

You don't finish the thought. It's like arguing that a koi--one
of the colorful carp in the hotel garden pool--could devour a

His real name is Masashi Ozaki, and he's the eldest of three
brothers from Tokushima prefecture, in southwestern Japan, who
play pro golf. In his teens he was the star pitcher for the
spring national champion Kainan High team, which in Japan
bestows status comparable to that of the quarterback of a U.S.
national champion college football team. He was introduced to
golf by the golf-mad manager of the Nishitetsu Lions pro
baseball club, the team Ozaki signed with in 1967.

"There's a Jumbo, and there's a Masashi," Ozaki says, making a
distinction between the showman and the inner man. Jumbo emerged
about 30 years ago while Ozaki was teaching himself the game,
and burst full-blown on the scene when he gave up baseball for
tournament golf at age 22. "From the beginning I wanted to look
good, to wear good clothes, to be in the spotlight."

To behave, in other words, in a distinctly un-Japanese manner.
Jumbo's hair--a shag cut that spills down his neck--sets him
apart. You see such hair behind the wheel of a flashy car after
midnight in one of Tokyo's bawdy soapland districts.

Masashi, on the other hand, lives outside Tokyo with his wife,
Yoshiko, and their three children. His walled estate--a palace
by Japanese standards--has a backyard driving range and a garage
for his collection of classic cars.

When Jumbo goes abroad, he travels with an entourage, what the
Japanese call a kobun. At the Masters he rents a large house and
flies in a sushi chef from New York. "He is the Arnold Palmer of
Japan," says Sadao Iwata, the country's best-known television
golf commentator. "Golfers here dress like him, buy the
equipment he plays, smoke the same brand of cigarettes."

Westerners don't get it. Jumbo has finished no better than a tie
for eighth in the Masters, and that was back in '73. He has
missed the cut seven times, missed the entire tournament from
1980 through '86, and has shot several rounds of 78 and higher.
His best showings in the other majors are equally drab: a 47th
in the '94 PGA, a tie for sixth in the '89 U.S. Open and a 14th
in the '78 British Open. Admittedly, Ozaki has never pursued
those trophies with the intensity of, say, a Jack Nicklaus or a
Nick Faldo.

It's startling, then, to talk with Americans who play the
Japanese tour--golfers who see a different Ozaki. "He's
unbelievable, a big hitter with a fantastic short game," says
Todd Hamilton, who was a star at Oklahoma. "Guys from the States
wonder why he's ranked so high, but you don't see many of the
famous players beating him when they play here. He makes the
putts Nicklaus used to make, the ones to keep a round going."

Peter Teravainen, who joined the Japanese tour in 1996 after 14
years on the European tour, practically erupts when it is
suggested that Ozaki isn't as good as his ranking. "I get so
pissed off at the golf magazines in the U.S. and Europe that say
Jumbo is no good. They never get off their butts and come here
to see him play."

Ozaki fans can point to more than testimonial evidence. When he
won the Dunlop Phoenix Invitational in 1996, beating the cream
of Asian golfers and a score of top international players, it
was Jumbo's 100th pro victory. (It also marked his third
straight title in that tournament, Japan's richest.) Last year,
when he could have been playing Senior golf, Ozaki won five more
Japanese tour events (one by 12 shots), including an
unprecedented sixth JPGA Championship, and led the Japanese
money list for the 11th time. "Anytime you win a hundred
tournaments, you can flat play," says Tom Watson.

Skeptics ask: Is Jumbo honestly that good? Answer: Yes.

Cynics ask: Is Jumbo that good honestly? Answer: Depends on whom
you ask.

Greg Norman, for one, thinks Japanese officials need to crack
down on Ozaki. Four years ago, in a tournament at Japan's Tomei
Country Club, Norman accused Jumbo of improving his lie in the
rough by pressing down the grass behind his ball with a club
head. The local rules committee did nothing. Last year in the
Crowns tournament at Nagoya Country Club, Norman claimed he
again saw Ozaki use his driver to improve a bad lie before
switching to another club for the shot.

"Norman was very angry," says a Japanese journalist who
witnessed the event. But again, no official action was taken,
and Norman's accusations got delicate treatment in the national
press. "In Japan cheating is not tolerated, but as a whole
Japanese sportsmen have a more shallow knowledge of the rules,"
says Kazuhiko Muto, an editor at the Hochi Shimbun and one of
the few Japanese writers to report the allegations. His
explanation for the JPGA's inaction? "There is a saying in
Japan: 'You place a lid over a smelling pot.'"

Norman's charges aside, suspicion of Ozaki is rampant among
golf's moral majority, the professional tour caddies. "I've got
a friend who says when Jumbo marks his ball it looks like he's
playing Chinese checkers," said Jerry Higginbotham, Mark
O'Meara's caddie, during a swing through Japan. "I'm going to be
watching him like a hawk." Other caddies swear that Ozaki, a
nonconformist, plays with a nonconforming golf ball--that is, a
ball that flies long when Jumbo hits it and curves right or left
at his command.

Ozaki's defenders scoff at the equipment claim. "I think it's
sour grapes to say he's playing with illegal stuff," says
Teravainen. "I'm longer than Jumbo, and nobody's ever accused me
of playing a doctored ball. But I'm not winning a hundred
tournaments, either."

Even O'Meara's caddie has a different take on the cheating
allegations now that he has watched Ozaki play several
tournament rounds. "If he's pulled anything, I've missed it,"
says Higginbotham, watching Ozaki hit balls on the range after
another low-scoring round. "And I'm amazed at how good he is. He
can really play."

Back at the hotel, you study the biggest koi in the pool, the
fat gold one, and you decide he might be a match for an eel or
even a barracuda.

Jumbo's response to criticism is the sound of one hand clapping.
He rarely acknowledges it. He communicates by press conference.
Requests for private interviews are usually deflected to
Bridgestone, to his own company, Jumbo Ozaki Enterprises, or to
World One Company, Ltd., the new equipment company that recently
signed him to a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal. Those
companies, after a dignified delay of several days--or
weeks--usually report that Jumbo is unavailable.

Persistence is a form of flattery, however, and after two months
of haggling, Ozaki agrees to a rare, one-on-one interview. Ozaki
insists that the interview be conducted away from his house,
that it not involve his wife, who runs Jumbo Ozaki Enterprises
for him, and that an interpreter be provided. "Jumbo understands
English, but he speaks it with hesitation," says a Japanese golf
writer who has visited his house. "He does not do something in
public if he is not perfect."

The interview takes place in November during a pro-am party at
the Taiheyo Club in Gotemba. Ozaki, followed by a couple of
kobun, enters the clubhouse in his playing outfit--shimmering
velour pants and a sweater with colorful geometric shapes--and
selects a private room on the second floor. There he sinks into
an armchair and lights a cigarette. Clouds of smoke veil the
world's most enigmatic golfer.

You begin: "You are a man of many interests...," because, as you
understand it, Ozaki-san is something of a Renaissance man. He
reads travel books. He collects cars. He plays guitar, sings,
collects instruments and hit the pop charts in Japan with three
singles in the late '80s. Ozaki is the antipode of his rival,
Isao Aoki, Japan's other great touring pro. Aoki knows only golf.

But your information is outdated. Ozaki says that his cars--a
Ferrari, a Lamborghini, a Maserati, three Rolls-Royces--are
garaged. That hobby is "finito." So, too, is his music. He says,
"I think the guitar is in the attic and food for mice."

What, you ask, are his current interests? Wine and bonsai, he
replies. His wine collection consists of "about a thousand
bottles" of French wines of good vintage, which he buys by the
case, drinking one bottle and saving the rest. More involving,
because it requires patience and the hands and soul of an
artist, is bonsai--a traditional Japanese discipline in which a
gardener shapes dwarf plants to idealized forms.

"Aoki-san looks at golf as his hobby and his work," Ozaki says.
"I envy him, in a way, but I know I cannot do that. I need to
get away." He crushes his cigarette in an ashtray and lights
another. "I have used up a lot of time and money on hobbies."

His interests, then, explain why Ozaki does not move to the U.S.
and play the rich Senior tour. He would be giving up his
culture, his life, for a succession of hotel rooms. Ozaki nods
and continues: "Also, in my generation to be Number 1 in Japan
was the major goal. You didn't have Nomo going to the major
leagues when I was young. It's unfortunate because I've seen the
American tour, the enthusiasm of the galleries and the level of
play. It's too bad I wasn't born there so I could feel that same
fire in me."

Ozaki sums up. "The Japanese golf world needs me." Needs...

He smiles indulgently. No. Japan needs Jumbo--his speed-tribe
melding of Elvis, James Dean and Liberace, with the golf peacock
Doug Sanders thrown in. "The tournament site is a stage for me.
I want to be the sort of person the fans want me to be."

A Bridgestone rep enters the room and whispers in Ozaki's ear.
He is needed at the pro-am party. Bows must be taken, egos
massaged. Ozaki puts out his cigarette and rises. "If you need
more time," he says, "I will come right back."

There's a question still to be asked, but the interview will end
if you so much as utter the word yakuza.

"There have always been rumors about Jumbo," says a Japanese
newspaperman. "Similar to your Frank Sinatra." According to one
story, Ozaki played with a yakuza in a private event. When he
was admonished by the Japanese tour, he said, "How was I
supposed to know? The guy was wearing a golf glove." (Amputated
fingers are a yakuza trademark.)

Hard facts are few. In 1987 Japan's biggest newspaper, Yomiuri
Shimbun, obtained photographs of Ozaki in a dinner jacket at a
birthday party for Susumu Ishii, the alleged leader of
Inagawa-kai, one of Japan's biggest criminal enterprises.
Yomiuri reported that Ozaki had met Chihiro Inagawa, eldest son
of the gang's founder, in the late '70s at the Hawaiian Open.
The paper said Jumbo was subsequently entertained by
Inagawa-kai's top executives, played golf with them at a resort
outside Tokyo and even gave them golf lessons. Inagawa
reportedly displayed in his house a framed photograph of himself
with Ozaki and showed it proudly to guests. Four days after the
Yomiuri article appeared, the Japanese tour officially warned

Since then journalists have shown little interest in following
up. Ozaki punishes Yomiuri by refusing to talk to its reporters.
"It's still a delicate subject," says a Yomiuri business writer.
"You don't ask whose money is behind Jumbo or World One."

Bridgestone, for one, would like to know. The Japanese
golf-equipment company dominates its home market, thanks largely
to a long relationship with Ozaki. Last November, however, Jumbo
signed an equipment deal with little-known World One, an
entertainment company that started 10 years ago as a pipsqueak
outfit renting karaoke machines. The payoff for Ozaki--estimated
to be as high as $200 million over five years and no lower than
$20 million--invited speculation that the deal was designed to
funnel cash to the golfer, who is believed to have lost millions
in real estate investments in the early '90s. Bridgestone,
meanwhile, was left with a ball deal.

So you have this business question for Jumbo. When he returns,
you ask if he has been hurt by the popping of Japan's so-called
bubble economy. Jumbo lights another cigarette and frowns. "I
don't have any particular interest in money," he says. "If I
produce wins, the business side goes well." His eyes wander to
the window, then to the floor. He waits for the next question.
You change the subject.

The 17th hole at Kyushu's Phoenix Country Club is fronted by a
pond, and in the pond is a small fountain. In 1994 Jumbo hit his
approach shot on the final day of the Dunlop Phoenix onto this
birdbath-like perch, three feet above the water. "I still think
he should have played it," says Australian golf writer Graeme
Agars, studying a picture in a display case of the stranded ball.

You're in Jumbo's Corner, a museum of Ozaki memorabilia on the
second floor of Phoenix's luxurious clubhouse. Here's a photo of
Jumbo in '71, as skinny as Tiger Woods and wearing wild-striped
pants. Here are the clubs he used to win his 100th tournament,
and here is a document, on rice parchment, executed in precise,
elegant calligraphy, lovely enough to frame. It's a letter to
the club from Jumbo, in his own hand.

You've seen other evidence of his perfectionism. A photographer
wanted Jumbo to pose beside a bonsai. Jumbo winced, smiled,
leaned back in his chair. Finally, he shook his head. "I don't
want to get my picture taken next to a cheap bonsai," he said.
"If you buy a $10,000 bonsai, I don't mind."

It occurs to you that Jumbo is a funny nickname for a man who is
not large, even by Japanese standards. "They say he's a shy
person," says David Ishii, the touring pro from Hawaii. "I find
that amazing because he doesn't act like it in a crowd."

Shy he may be, but Jumbo is not reclusive. In his backyard, by
the practice facility, he has built motel-style housing for
members of his gundan, the 20 or so golf apprentices who look to
him for instruction and career guidance. (It is commonplace,
insiders say, for Ozaki's wife to cook dinner for 30 between
business calls.) Every January the gundan moves to tropical
Okinawa or Kyushu for Jumbo's spring camp, a sort of Grapefruit
League for golfers. There Jumbo leads calisthenics and prepares
his charges--such as the effervescent Shigeki Maruyama, who rode
the leader board for much of last year's PGA Championship--for
the rigors of international golf. The irony, of course, is that
Jumbo has chosen the most parochial of career paths. His biggest
win outside his home country is the 1972 New Zealand PGA

Why is he a lesser golfer when he leaves Japan? His detractors
say it's because he can't stretch the rules outside Asia. Others
point out that Ozaki has never made a concerted assault on the
majors. A more intriguing theory--and one that mirrors a common
complaint of many Japanese women about their husbands--is
offered by Ayako Okamoto, the Japanese pro who won 17
tournaments on the LPGA tour. Ozaki and the other men can't win
abroad, she says, because they are victims of the "doting mother
syndrome" prevalent in Japan. That is, they are so spoiled they
can't function on their own. Or as she puts it, "They can't make
it without their Cup Noodles." Ozaki has his own nonexplanation:
"When I get in that atmosphere, I don't get the urge to win as

It is interesting, then, to hear that he still dreams of winning
the Masters, which will welcome him next week for the 17th time.
"The Masters, to me, is the ultimate in sports, showing golf in
its best form," he says. "To win the Masters would be the glory
of my career."

But can he win it? He has finished no better than 23rd in this
decade. He missed the cut in '94 and '96. Suddenly energized, he
leans forward in his armchair at the Taiheyo Club. He waves his
cigarette, making smoke trails. "Five years from now I will
still have the power and the length and the physical skills to
win it. I don't think anybody else, at the same age, would have
that energy."

But with Woods now in the picture--"Tiger is young," he
interrupts, "and purposeful and has that enthusiasm to win. But
to win at a ripe age, that's something I feel is very difficult
to achieve. There's only one condition for that. You have to win
like a young player. It doesn't mean anything if you just win
with technical skills. You have to win like a young player."

The interpreter catches your eye. "It is difficult to translate.
Ozaki-san asks if you understand what it means, 'To win like a
young man.'" You assure her and Ozaki-san that you understand

In truth, he has probably offered you a $10,000 bonsai, and you
have taken it for a $30 Kmart ficus.

"What did Ozaki have to say?" someone asks you later.

"Oh, a little of this and a little of that."

You go to the garden pool one last time to study the swarming
koi. The fat gold one is missing. Sleeping maybe, or lurking in
the shadows near the stone lantern, or gone? You wonder how a
certain fish might fare in deeper waters.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK [Jumbo Ozaki beside bonsai tree]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK HAPPY WARRIOR Ozaki remains the most popular golfer in Japan because even at 51, he continues to win regularly and with style. [Jumbo Ozaki playing golf]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK SIGN LANGUAGE Ozaki's not willing to give up his culture for a series of U.S. hotel rooms. [Jumbo Ozaki signing autographs]COLOR PHOTO: MATTHEW HARRIS NAME GAME The Ozaki brothers (from left) Naomichi, 41, Masashi and Tateo, 44, are known as Joe, Jumbo and Jet outside Japan. [Naomichi "Joe" Ozaki, Masashi "Jumbo" Ozaki and Tateo "Jet" Ozaki]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK SHADOWY FIGURE Ozaki's deal with World One, estimated to be as high as $200 million for five years, invited speculation. [Jumbo Ozaki in silhouette playing golf]
"From the beginning I wanted to look good, to be in the
spotlight," Ozaki says.
"In my generation, to be Number 1 in Japan was the major goal,"
says Ozaki.
Norman, who twice accused Ozaki of cheating, was angry when
officials took no action.
"It's a delicate subject," says a writer. "You don't ask whose
money is behind Jumbo."