Sunday 19 November 2017

Rising sons of golf need to reach Major milestone

Japanese players have promised so much, but winning one of the big four has so far eluded them

Hideki Matsuyama won last week’s WGC-HSBC Champions golf tournament at the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, but bagging a Major win has remained elusive for Japanese players. Photo: Ng Han Guan/AP
Hideki Matsuyama won last week’s WGC-HSBC Champions golf tournament at the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, but bagging a Major win has remained elusive for Japanese players. Photo: Ng Han Guan/AP

Dermot Gilleece

Shades were pushed back on a shock of black hair as he surveyed the assembled media in the interview area at Riviera CC. Then, the 17-year-old who had received a sponsors' invitation ahead of Rory McIlroy confronted the battery of television cameras with a well-tutored, "Hello America!", before continuing, "I am Ryo Ishikawa from Japan".

It was February 2009 in Los Angeles and McIlroy had to wait until the Accenture World Match Play in Tucson a week later for his PGA Tour debut. Meanwhile, Ishikawa'a much-vaunted launch onto the American scene would prove to be yet another false golfing dawn for the land of the rising sun.

Now the hope is that things will be different for 24-year-old Hideki Matsuyama, who reached a significant milestone in China last weekend by becoming the first Asian winner of a World Golf Championship event. Foremost in the difference he's pursuing will be the elusive prize of a Major breakthrough.

It is truly remarkable that where Korea's YE Yang triumphed in the 2009 PGA Championship, there has still been no joy for golf-crazy Japan, whose Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono captured the Canada Cup in Tokyo almost 60 years ago. The closest they came was in the 1980 US Open at Baltusrol, where Isao Aoki lost by two strokes to Jack Nicklaus.

As it happened, Nicklaus (272) and Aoki (274) each collected $50,000 offered by Golf Magazine to any player who broke the US Open aggregate record of 275, though it was poor consolation for the broader Japanese support. Mind you, Aoki brought renewed hope by holing a fairway shot for a closing eagle to capture the 1983 Hawaiian Open.

Still, Japanese success in mainland America didn't come until 2001. This was to mean an early departure from their Rosses Point home for the O'Reillys, Greta and Oliver, in their plans to attend the Open Championship at Royal Lytham. In fact, they were in Lancashire on the Sunday night prior to the Open for a rather special telecast.

They saw Shigeki Maruyama capture top prize of $558,000 after a play-off for the Greater Milwaukee Open, with their son, Jude, on his bag. Which lent a special dimension to the family reunion when the triumphant duo arrived at Lytham later that week.

O'Reilly, then 31 and known as Judo to his oriental employer, teamed up with Maruyama at the beginning of 2000, having previously worked with another Japanese player, Massy Kuramoto. In their opening year together, Maruyama became the first Japanese player to top $1 million in US earnings in a season.

"He was even more pleasant off the course," recalled O'Reilly of a player whose smiling demeanour endeared him to galleries everywhere. For his part, the bagman conversed with his master in what he described as casual Japanese, having been in Japan for eight-and-a-half years, though he also used expressions like 'nice shot' in golf's universal language.

By that stage, many felt that Masashi 'Jumbo' Ozaki, a living legend in his homeland, would have been the player to make the breakthrough. Ozaki once told a colleague, however, that visits to the US were uncomfortable reminders that World War II had not been consigned to history. Movies like 'Pearl Harbor', wouldn't have helped the cause.

Ishikawa arrived at Riviera CC as the youngest player ever to break into the world's top 100. So it was hardly surprising to see the attendant Japanese media increase from a normal 20 to more than 100, causing the organisers to extend the media tent by 40 feet.

Since then, a further 125 PGA Tour events have delivered two seconds but no win. His latest was the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur last month, when he was tied 10th. Significantly, like the Canada Cup side of 1957, all of his 15 victories have been on native terrain, where he shot a 58 when winning The Crowns in 2010.

So, what is the problem? Seasoned guru David Leadbetter ascribed their lack of success to a general absence of fire under pressure. Ishikawa's nickname 'Hanikami Oji', which translates as 'Bashful Prince', seemed to personify this notion. It also tied in with Maruyama's belief that the difference between winning and losing was divine, prompting him to seek spiritual guidance from American veteran Larry Nelson.

Padraig Harrington, who had a memorable victory over Tiger Woods in the 2006 Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan, believes the problem certainly has nothing to do with the quality of their game.

"Overseas players attempting to compete successfully in the American Major championships have to become comfortable with a distinctly different lifestyle," he said. "Bear in mind that while there's a culture change for Europeans in the US, it's a massive change for an oriental. Japan has always had good players but their chances of ultimate success generally depend on where they play. That's what they have to overcome."

When securing three victories in the US, Maruyama appeared to have no such hang-ups about life there. Enjoyed as something of a comedian, he became Japan's 'ichiban', or standard-bearer, in America, where colleagues also viewed him as a goodwill ambassador for his country.

Known to mischievously mimic the Nicklaus swing, he once did it in front of the Golden Bear during a clinic at the Memorial Tournament. He would also imitate the Scots accent of the former Open Championship starter, Ivor Robson. Against this background, it was revealing to note Matsuyama's claim in the wake of a third PGA victory in China last Sunday, that Maruyama was a good friend, "And he always said that I was going to pass his records".

The first Japanese since Jumbo Ozaki to make the world's top 10 added: "At least I've tied Shigeki [with three PGA Tour wins], which is a great honour, because I have great respect for him."

But he knows there's much more to be accomplished. Should success in a Major come his way, he can imagine its impact on those who follow. Just like Harrington had on his Irish contemporaries.

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