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Picture Perfect
John Garrity
December 08, 1997
Playing on the lucrative Japan tour looks like the best gig in golf, but appearances can be deceiving
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December 08, 1997

Picture Perfect

Playing on the lucrative Japan tour looks like the best gig in golf, but appearances can be deceiving

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I followed Teruo Sugihara during the Taiheiyo Masters. A short man in fawn-colored slacks and sweater, he played the hilly Gotemba course with high, short drives and long-iron approaches.

"Sugihara is what we call a shoku-nin," said Ricky Matsamura of Dunlop. For a moment I thought Sugihara had had another birthday, but Matsamura explained that a shoku-nin is a technician, a finesse player. A legendary putter, Sugihara showed in the pro-am how he had won 61 JPGA events. While the following group hit to the front of a green, Sugihara practice-putted three balls to spots on the back, working so quickly that all three balls were rolling at once. "He puts on a clinic every time he strokes the ball," an American player told me, "and the galleries love him."

A week later, at the Dunlop Phoenix, I arranged a little talk with Sugihara. The meeting place was a tee box, where I found him swinging a driver, surrounded by a still photographer, two assistants holding reflectors, a man with a tape recorder and a young woman producer. "It's going to be a 14-page instruction feature for Japan Golf Digest" said Matsamura, who had agreed to be my interpreter.

Sugihara turned out to be a man of warmth and humility—qualities gained in his youth, when Japan's golf landscape was bleak. "I was eight when the Second World War was finished," he said, standing with no sign of weariness after eight hours on his feet. "Most of the golf courses had become farms and airfields, and the ones that remained were played only by the very wealthy." Sugihara's father was a tenant farmer in Osaka. Golf entered the picture when his father took a job as a greenkeeper. "I found lost balls behind the trees," Sugihara said, smiling at the memory. "I made a hole and played with a stick."

Like most of the pros of his generation, Sugihara started as a caddie and learned the game by osmosis. "When I turned pro in 1955, there were only six tournaments and maybe 150 professionals. You survived by giving lessons and by winning money from the club members."

Matsamura leaned toward me and said, "I think he still wins money from the members." He looked at Sugihara and both men laughed.

There's one totem of the U.S. Tour that seems particularly un-Japanese: the big cardboard winner's check. Usually, when the Japanese exchange money with people they know, they discreetly put cash in an envelope. (It's not necessary to open the envelope to know that the amount is correct.) Prize money, being more substantial, is wired to the player's bank account—minus 10% for JPGA administration costs, which until a few years ago were paid by tournament sponsors. Only the winner is spared this tax.

The Japanese economy rides a boom-and-bust cycle reminiscent of the U.S.'s in the late 19th century, the era of the Robber Barons. The day Tom Watson flew out of Japan, richer by $286,000 for winning the Dunlop Phoenix, newspaper headlines screamed the news that one of its Big Four securities firms, Yamaichi Securities, had collapsed. On television, panelists fretted over sokaiya scandals (secret corporate payoffs to extortionists) and Asian currency crises. The country is still reeling from the collapse, in the early '90s, of its Bubble Economy—the ruinous overvaluation of real estate and security assets that made Japan a swindler's paradise.

The Bubble Economy shaped Japanese golf as surely as American course designers like Michael Poellot and Robert Trent Jones Jr. shaped its $200 million courses. Private club memberships, which are bought and sold like stocks, soared as high as $3 million each in the late '80s—and the member still had to pay a greens fee of as much as $100 every time he played.

"People have lost a lot of money on golf," Ishikawa told me during a round at Tokyo's elegant Glen Oaks Country Club. "The three-million-dollar membership is now worth one million."

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