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Happy Warrior With his gifts for humor and golf, Shigeki Maruyama has won the hearts of Japan. Now he's taking his act overseas in search of a bigger world to conquer

Jan. 25, 1999
Jan. 25, 1999

Table of Contents
Jan. 25, 1999

Faces In The Crowd
Michael Jordan

Happy Warrior With his gifts for humor and golf, Shigeki Maruyama has won the hearts of Japan. Now he's taking his act overseas in search of a bigger world to conquer

It was a smile that lit up the golf world. In three days Shigeki
Maruyama's toothy exuberance announced him not only as a rising
international star but also as one of the most likable characters
in the game. Maruyama's putter may have been hotter than wasabi
during last month's Presidents Cup, in which he went 5-0 to lead
the Internationals to their stunning upset, but the instrument
that left the most lasting impression was that ever-present grin.
Nick Price called it infectious, and even one of the losing
Americans, Lee Janzen, said, "Watching how much fun he was
having, how could you not love that?"

This is an article from the Jan. 25, 1999 issue

But if Maruyama's pearly whites are now recognized from Melbourne
to Minneapolis, the man behind all that enamel remains something
of a mystery. Last week Maruyama washed ashore at the Sony Open
in Hawaii--the first of what could be as many as a dozen
appearances in the States this year--and his first tournament
since the Presidents Cup offered the chance to find answers to a
few lingering questions. To wit: Could Maruyama possibly be as
charming as he seems? Was his performance Down Under a fluke? And
now that the world tour is a reality, will he become the first
Japanese golfer to make a ripple on these shores?

Maruyama is not sitting on top of the world, it only feels that
way. The view from his balcony, on the top floor of one of
Honolulu's swankiest hotels, begins at Diamond Head and stretches
the length of Waikiki Beach. Maruyama's perch is worthy of
Japanese golf's new ichiban (No. 1). His recent heroics received
unprecedented attention back home, and just trying to negotiate
the hotel lobby and its many Japanese tourists has been a daily
reminder for Maruyama of his newly elevated status. "It has
gotten ridiculous," he says. Actually, that's what a translator
says, as Maruyama's English is limited mostly to the names of
items on a McDonald's menu. But even with the language barrier
there is something in his manner that conveys his astonishment at
just how far he has come.

Maruyama, 29, was born and raised in Chiba, outside Tokyo. His
father, Mamoru, was the co-owner of a book publishing company, a
scratch golfer and a member of Tsuchiura Country Club, in
Ibaraki. Mamoru imparted invaluable instruction to his son,
beginning when Shigeki was nine. At 11 the pint-sized Maruyama
gained a measure of renown when he shot an even-par 72 at
6,700-yard Tsuchiura. Still it wasn't until the following year,
1981, that "I dedicated my life to golf," he says. The epiphany
came as he watched a television image of a victorious Tom Watson
walking up the final fairway at Augusta National. "He had the
biggest smile I had ever seen," says Maruyama. "He looked so
happy, and that stayed with me for a very long time. I wanted one
day to feel like that."

After a smashing amateur career, Maruyama turned pro in 1992. He
won his first tournament the following season, but his
breakthrough year didn't come until 1997, when he won three times
in Japan, finished 10th at the British Open and then hogged the
top of the leader board at the PGA Championship at Winged Foot
for two days before finishing 23rd. At that point Maruyama was
already one of Japan's most popular athletes, and his golfing
exploits were only part of the reason. Throughout the early years
of his career he had been a regular guest on the popular TV
variety show Yume-ga-MoriMori (translation: Lots of Dreams), on
which he did everything from comic sketches to dead-on
impersonations of the world's top golfers. "I promise you,
Shigeki could be a professional comic if he wanted," says his
agent, Hal Tsunezumi. "He has a natural gift for reaching out to
people."

These days Maruyama is seen frequently on TV, but primarily in
commercials for five companies, including multinationals such as
Bridgestone, Coca-Cola and Toyota. According to Sadao Iwata, the
doyen of Japanese golf commentators, no other Japanese athlete
can touch Maruyama's domestic marketability, and that's just one
way of quantifying his popularity.

Maruyama has been embraced by his countrymen not only for who he
is but also for who he is not--namely, Jumbo Ozaki, who has
dominated the Japanese golf scene for more than a quarter
century. Ozaki, 52, has been accused of cheating by Greg Norman,
among others, and it's often whispered that he once had ties to
the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Equally damaging to Ozaki's
reputation in golf circles have been his pathetic showings in
international events, notably the majors. Ozaki has won more than
100 tournaments in Japan and led the Japanese money list 11
times, including last year, but his only victory outside his home
country came in the 1972 New Zealand PGA. Ozaki's status was
further diminished last fall when, after qualifying for the
Presidents Cup, he declined to play for the International team.
"Why he hasn't played well overseas is the great mystery of the
world," says Maruyama. Asked if he feels any extra pressure to
succeed because Ozaki hasn't, Maruyama coyly responds, "He has
his style, I have mine."

Maruyama calls Ozaki "a second father." Ozaki, unfazed by
Maruyama's so-so '98 season on the Japanese tour--he finished
seventh on the money list and won only once--has publicly
designated Maruyama as his successor. Maruyama is surprisingly
blase about the passing of the torch. "In his generation to be
Number 1 in Japan was what mattered," Maruyama says. "If I played
every tournament there [he has won eight], if all I cared about
was the Japanese money list, I could be Number 1 too. However, it
is a global game now, and I want to play all over."

Particularly in the U.S. "I love America," he says, which isn't
particularly difficult to ascertain. Over the course of an hour
and a half interview, Maruyama wolfed down a Big Mac and fries,
pounded two Cokes, smoked half a pack of Parliaments and proudly
showed off his brand-new Air Jordans. His entertainment tastes
have also been made in the USA. He calls Mariah Carey his
favorite singer and Die Hard his favorite movie, although, he
concedes, "as long as a few buildings blow up, I'm happy. I don't
like romantic stuff like Titanic because I cry easily, and then
people laugh at me." (The Winslet to Maruyama's DiCaprio is his
high school sweetheart, now his wife, Mizuho, who increases his
comfort in the States with her fluent English.)

Even Maruyama's game is Americanized. "He hits driver off almost
every tee, just bombs it," says Janzen. In Hawaii he averaged 283
yards on his drives. Along with Scott Hoch, Janzen lost a
foursomes match to Maruyama and Craig Parry at the Presidents
Cup. The next day Maruyama and partners Parry, in the morning,
and Joe Ozaki, in the afternoon, beat the teams of Fred Couples
and Tiger Woods, and David Duval and Phil Mickelson,
respectively. "He has such good touch around the greens and with
the putter that he's not afraid to take the risk because he knows
he can get it up and down," adds Janzen, who plays two or three
times a year in Japan. "I wasn't surprised by his performance in
Melbourne because he always plays that way when I see him. He's
got the best motion of any of the Japanese players. He has
effortless power. Physically he can certainly be a world-class
player. But only he knows what he's got in his heart."

Unbridled passion, it seems. Without prompting, Maruyama says,
"The goal of my life is to win in mainland America." That is
something no Japanese player has ever done on the PGA Tour. (Isao
Aoki won the '83 Hawaiian Open but was never able to make the
leap across the Pacific.) Maruyama claims to have rededicated
himself following last year's Masters, of which he has jokingly
declared himself the nine-hole champion. He did, indeed, lead the
tournament at the turn on Thursday, at three under, only to miss
the cut by shooting 74-80. One noticeable sign of Maruyama's
renewed commitment is that his physical condition has improved
considerably, thanks to a workout regimen. At 5'7" and 185 pounds
he still looks like a Teletubbie, but, says Tsunezumi, "He might
look chubby, but his body is very solid."

Maruyama is also learning that to stay in peak form he must
sometimes say no. Last week at Waialae Country Club he shot 73-72
and missed the cut by three strokes. He blamed his lackluster
play on not being mentally fresh due to the whirlwind that
followed the Presidents Cup. He plans to lay low until the World
Match Play at La Costa next month. Then he will tune up for
Augusta by playing the Players Championship as well as the
BellSouth Classic. Mix in the other majors and World events, and
probably a couple more tournaments in the summer, and the Tour
will be seeing a lot of Maruyama's sunny visage this year, which
is not necessarily good news for the home folks. "I'm not a
person who talks big, but I've always believed that I could
compete with the best," says Maruyama. "Now after the Presidents
Cup, I know I can."

Maruyama's face lit up with one of his trademark smiles. "I've
also learned the secret to why the Americans hit the ball so
far," he said. "They grew up eating cheeseburgers, not rice."
Then, in shocking English, Maruyama boomed, "Cheeseburger power!
I will eat cheeseburgers!"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK [Shigeki Maruyama playing ukelele]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK BUNKER MENTALITY Maruyama goes for broke because even if he misses a fairway or green, he can count on his short game. [Shigeki Maruyama playing golf]
"I could be Number 1 [in Japan]," Maruyama says. "However, golf
is a global game, and I want to play all over."