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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 10, 2002

Japanese golfers follow flight of Aoki's eagle to Waialae

 •  Wilson deserved sponsor's exemption for Sony Open
 •  Special report: 2002 Sony Open
 •  Tournament historical statistics

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Shigeki Maruyama, perpetual smile on his face and big wink on the way, knew why he missed the cut at the 2001 British Open.

Shigeki Maruyama is among a new generation of golfers from Japan who will play here this week.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

"A lot of shaking hands," he joked, feigning injury.

Maruyama, partial to cheeseburgers and a passionate fan of Michael Jordan, is not a man uncomfortable on foreign turf. The week before the British, he won the Greater Milwaukee Open, becoming the second Japanese golfer to win on the PGA Tour.

The first was Isao Aoki, who launched the eagle heard halfway around the world to win the 1983 Hawaiian Open. The generation of Japanese golfers that grew up after that miraculous shot, and with Masashi "Jumbo" Ozaki, is now upon us.

Beginning with this morning's first round of the Sony Open in Hawai'i, it is within us. Nearly 10 percent of the golfers in the PGA Tour's first full-field event have played extensively, or are still playing, on the Japan Golf Tour. That includes 'Aiea's David Ishii, the 1990 Hawaiian Open champion, and Kane'ohe's Dean Wilson, third on last year's JGT money list.

"These guys were like 6 or 7 years old when they saw Aoki win," says Ishii, 46, who has spent the last 20 years playing in Japan. "They aspired to be like that. Japan has finally got to where America was in the '80s and early '90s.

"They've seen Jumbo play on TV. It's like I grew up reading all Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus' books. The generation before was watching Bobby Jones. This generation is watching Tiger Woods."

The 32-year-old Maruyama, 37th on the PGA Tour money list his first two years in the U.S., might be the first ripple in a wave of Japanese golfers descending on the world's premier tour. In the final 2001 World Golf Ranking, nine Japanese golfers were in the Top 100 — more than any country except the U.S.

 •  Pack lightly

Spectators attending the Sony Open in Hawai'i will not be allowed to enter the Waialae Country Club course with cameras, pagers, cell phones, coolers, chairs or backpacks.

Most of these restrictions are standard PGA rules, according to a Sony Open in Hawai'i spokesman.

The restriction on backpacks was added this year.

Spectators may bring fannypacks to the tournament, which runs today through Sunday.

Kaname Yokoo, who traces his interest in the game to Aoki's miracle wedge, won nearly $500,000 as a rookie in the U.S. last year and is here this week with Maruyama.

So are Katsumasa Miyamoto, Keiichiro Fukabori, Hiroyuki Fujita, Shinichi Yokota and Tomohiro Kondo, who all finished in the Top 30 on Japan's money list in 2001 and were given exemptions. Kondo, with six Top-10 finishes, was Rookie of the Year.

Hidemichi Tanaka, the 2001 Hawai'i Pearl Open champion, placed 23rd at the PGA Qualifying School to earn his playing privileges this year and this week. Small and shockingly strong, the 5-foot-4, 135-pound "Ant" is one of the biggest hitters in the world.

"Tanaka has been good a long time," says Ishii, Pearl's Director of Golf. "The win at Pearl was nothing to him because he's won the Japan Open. He plays Pearl as a vacation.

"He's impressive because he's so small, but just as long as the big guys."

Like his good friend Maruyama, Tanaka is comfortable in the U.S. Maruyama, who has a home near Beverly Hills, is confused why anyone would think he shouldn't feel at home here.

"I can eat anything," he says, grinning again.

His memory of Aoki's Waialae wedge revolves around Jack Renner, the man the eagle beat. "I felt sad for him," Maruyama recalls.

There is little sadness for what he left behind, including the non-conforming equipment Japanese pros must leave at home when they play the PGA Tour. The JGT follows Royal & Ancient rules, which allow the high-tech drivers banned by the U.S. Golf Association.

Apparently, the adjustment hasn't been all that difficult.

"In our time, most of the guys hit the ball the same distance and a few hit it a lot longer," says Ishii, who has won 19 times in Japan. "Nowadays all the young guys hit it long. It's just the pattern of golf now. They all try to emulate Jumbo and he was the longest hitter. They all hit past him now.

"They're just as long as the American guys. The good players are around 290-300 yards and the next step down is about 270-280. My best was in the 260s."

Lower scores have followed longer drives. While the prize money in Japan hasn't kept pace with the U.S. — the JGT played for $31 million last year, the PGA for $180 million — scores have. Over par doesn't cut it anymore.

Ishii, who has one eye on trying to qualify for the PGA Senior Tour, wonders where it will end.

"I hate to think what it will be like in five more years," he says. "They'll have to start hiding the holes on the greens so we'll have to guess where they are."