In the days of old Hollywood, Laurence Olivier at his handsome, tragically romantic Heathcliff best would have starred in the Hisayuki Sasaki story, eyes made up faux-Asian, brooding and purposeful behind a mask of cigarette smoke.
Having already won the hearts of Japanese fans while establishing himself as his country's most promising player, Sasaki last fall followed an eye-opening performance in the World Cup, where he extended Davis Love III to five holes of sudden death, by taking a stab at the PGA Tour. The first step was securing a Tour card, which Sasaki did by finishing 15th at Q school. The next was measuring himself against the world's best players in competition, which, after failing to gain entry into four events and making a false start at Pebble Beach, Sasaki was finally able to do last week in Hawaii.
He wasn't the only one wondering how he would stack up. Sensing that he might be the same kind of breakthrough player as Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, Japanese journalists are giving Sasaki's quest considerable coverage back home. In Hawaii, even Sadao Iwata, considered the most-esteemed member of the Japanese sports media, was on hand along with about 45 other reporters from Japan—three times the normal number at a Tour event—to chronicle Sasaki's 55th-place finish.
Though the 31-year-old Sasaki has been ascending for years on the Japanese tour, it is his personal history as much as his game that has captivated Japan. Orphaned at age five—Sasaki is unwilling to talk about his parents—he was raised by an uncle who belonged to a golf club. Turning pro at 22, Sasaki was making steady, if unspectacular, progress until February 1994, when his infant son, Yusuke, died of a heart disorder. Sasaki's world crumbled and he drank heavily. Months passed, but he finally rededicated himself to golf and emerged as a stronger, and virtually nerveless, player.
Mixing religion and golf, Sasaki wore a juzu, a beaded Buddhist bracelet, around his wrist until he won his first tournament, the 1994 Japan Series, which is a Japanese major. He dedicated the win to his son and placed the juzu in a temple to honor the boy.
In 1995 Sasaki won another major, the Japan PGA, and he widened his horizons. He qualified for the British Open, where he finished 31st, the World Series (37th) and the World Cup. Then he decided to take on the Tour.
"My sole goal is to get better. That's why I came to America," says Sasaki, who became only the second active Japanese member of the Tour, joining four-year veteran Joe Ozaki. He claims to feel no pressure—the memory of his son dwarfs any exigency in golf—and many observers think he has the right combination of temperament and ambition to succeed in the U.S.
Q school gave Sasaki an idea of what that would take. A burst of wind and rain in the middle of his first round led to a 74 at Florida's Bear Lakes. Given the conditions, he expected to be in the middle of the pack. Instead, he found himself in 153rd place. A 64 on the second day saved him from a quick trip home. "What makes it difficult in America is that in good conditions they shoot 64 and in bad conditions 67," says Sasaki. And because of his relatively low exempt status, just getting into tournaments has been another learning experience. "The system is good for the good players," he says, "but it's tough for guys like me who are still trying to grab for the American dream."
NBC's Masters Plan
After extending its contract for the Ryder Cup through 2005 last week, the Peacock couldn't resist spreading its feathers. NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol is "five strokes ahead of the field," said golf producer Tommy Roy, who also thumbed his nose at the competition by saying that CBS and ABC are "out of position and receiving penalty strokes," while NBC has become "the network of golf."