Not that it shows. The clubhouse at Glen Oaks, like most of those in Japan, is large and luxurious. The lockers are of polished wood, the hot-bath pools of resort quality. On the manicured course female caddies walk the hills aside robot trolleys that carry up to three bags over buried lines.
Similarly, the Japan tour presents an untroubled face. Its tournament courses are meticulously groomed and challenging, its grandstands are filled on weekends. It's the gaps in the family picture that hint at the truth. The JPGA Senior tour has shrunk from 23 events to six, as land brokers and development companies have dropped out as sponsors. The regular tour is more stable—only one tournament is threatened with extinction next season—but prize money has frozen at 1990 levels, and sponsors no longer pay huge appearance fees to foreign superstars. At the Dunlop Phoenix the 18 foreign players received $10,000 each for airfare and a hotel room. Nobody got six figures to play in a Tuesday skins game, as of old. "Miyazaki is a small city," says Pete Wakimoto, press officer for three of the JPGA's richest events. "Even if we sold three times as many tickets, we couldn't afford a million dollars for Tiger Woods."
On the other hand, the Dunlop Phoenix had deep enough pockets for a tournament gala that packed a giant ballroom for dinner and a show, and foreign journalists were treated to a daily pressroom buffet of sashimi, tempura, chicken and pork katsus, noodle soups and hors d'oeuvres served in ceramic boats on lacquered trays. "We hope you will come again," Wakimoto-san said. His real worry was getting us to leave.
In Asakusa, one of Tokyo's oldest downtown neighborhoods, there's a large temple that attracts thousands of visitors a day. They walk under giant red lanterns, fan incense smoke toward their nostrils and gaze through a wire barrier at a giant Buddha. Many also pick up a steel cylinder and shake it until an omi-kuji stick falls from a hole in the bottom. A number on the stick directs one to a particular pigeonhole, where a preprinted fortune awaits.
I thought about the temple fortunes after talking with a few of the Japan tour's younger players. They seem to have been selected by the fates, shaken out onto golf courses for no apparent reason.
"I guess it's surprising that we can play at all," says Taichi Teshima, a 29-year-old tour player from Kyushu, Japan's third-largest and southernmost island. "Golf courses charge full price for children, so only rich kids get to play. And kids like me. My father owned a driving range."
Teshima, who learned to speak colloquial English while playing golf at East Tennessee State, had to pass six stages to qualify for the Japan tour. Survivors of the first three stages of competition get to call themselves pros. Success at the next two levels gets one onto Japan's Growing tour, which is analogous to our Nike tour. Finally, if successful at the Q school, the player gets a one-year tour card. However, failure to crack the top 60 results in a demotion to the Growing tour. Fail there and it's back to square four.
"The old U.S. Tour kept the top 60," says Teravainen, "but the next 65 could still get in tournaments through Monday qualifying. This is more brutal. For number 61, it's Q school." The slope is also greased by a prize-money system, which showers most of the loot on the winner and a few top places. To keep his card, a young player might have to win a tournament and finish very high in several others. Top 15s don't count for much in Japan. "The breakdown is wicked, but it keeps players hungry," says Teravainen. "Everyone is trying to win."
The best of the young guns—players like the high-spirited Shigeki Maruyama, who rode the PGA leader board for four days in August at Winged Foot, or Hidemichi Tanaka, who consistently outdrove most U.S. pros at the '96 British Open—seem unafraid of foreign competition. Many hope to follow the example of Isao Aoki, who took Japanese golf to its greatest heights by winning the '78 World Match Play in England, by going head-to-head with Jack Nicklaus and finishing second at the '80 U.S. Open and, finally, by winning the 1983 Hawaiian Open with an eagle on the 72nd hole. (Aoki remains the only player from Japan to win in the U.S.) Now 55, Aoki has won seven tournaments on the U.S. Senior tour and finished third on its 1997 money list.
Most Japanese players recognize that Aoki paid a high price to pursue his global goals. In some years he played more than 40 tournaments and dozens of outings and exhibitions—leaving no time for outside interests or, for that matter, a life. Other players wonder if they can cope with the West's lone-wolf approach to the game. In Japan young professionals join training clubs called gundans, which are led by older, more established golfers. Maruyama, for example, was a member of Ozaki's gundan and regularly spent January and February with the master at something resembling a baseball spring training camp. Gundan players practice, exercise and eat as a group, and it's not unusual to see one team member caddying for another. "Some players depend too much on the gundan," a Japanese writer told me. "Without support, without Japanese-speaking friends and familiar food, they become homesick and play badly."