Indirectness is a Japanese virtue. I asked an executive with a Japanese rubber company how his country's economic problems had affected golf in Japan. Through an interpreter, the executive responded that there were black pines on his course that were 275 years old.
I asked Jumbo Ozaki, the 50-year-old icon of Japanese golf, if he had suffered financially when real estate values collapsed in the early '90s. He replied that wine collecting absorbed his attention these days.
The word inscrutable is in disrepute, so I must look for a metaphor to describe the Japanese flair for going round: sunlight refracted by water, perhaps.
On a sunny afternoon in Miyazaki on the subtropical island of Kyushu, about 530 miles southwest of Tokyo, I approached the 1st tee of the Phoenix Country Club, site of last month's Japan PGA Dunlop Phoenix. Poinsettias framed the tee box in holiday red, and smoke rose from an incense burner. Only it was not an incense burner, it turned out. It was an ashtray filled with smoldering cigarette butts.
The Japanese Professional Golfers Association is instantly recognizable to any American golfer over the age of, say, 45. It is the U.S. PGA Tour, circa 1973. There's an umbrella organization serving the needs of club professionals and a Tournament Players Division that conducts tournaments. The top 60 money winners keep their tour cards at the end of a 10-month season comprising 36 events. Tournament winners pose for photos with four-foot-wide cardboard checks. You almost expect a young Tom Weiskopf to drive up the clubhouse circle in a Thunder-bird convertible.
The Japan tour looks the way it does because it was founded in 1973 and because it relied on the advice of two American consultants: former PGA executive Jack Tuthill and golf promoter John Montgomery Sr. The JPGA mimics the American model in virtually every respect, from gallery roping to scoreboards to player lounges. The only startling variance is the presence of bonneted female caddies who, before leaving a green, bow to players waiting in the fairway.
But mostly the Japan tour belongs to the Japanese. Young Americans, Europeans, Australians and South Africans who would like a crack at Japanese purses of up to $1.6 million face daunting obstacles. For one thing, the JPGA qualifying tournament, held every November, is closed to foreigners. That leaves only a few side-door openings. The top money winner on the Asian tour, for instance, can get a JPGA card. (Paraguay's Carlos Franco took this route and since 1995 has won four Japanese tournaments.) There is also the smart-bomb-down-the-chimney approach taken last year by 16-year European tour veteran Peter Teravainen. Having filled out a Japan Open application on a whim, the Singapore-based American actually got invited—he was the only European tour player to apply—and then won the tournament, earning him a JPGA card good for 10 years. "I was getting ready to retire to the Omega tour [a rival to the Asian tour]," Teravainen said on the practice range at last month's Sumitomo Visa Taiheiyo Masters while staring at a cloud-capped Mount Fuji. "Instead I've won two more tournaments and cashed the biggest checks of my career."
Another deterrent is the minimum event policy, which has required members to play in at least 16 JPGA events. "There are too many obstacles for international players to qualify," says H. (Andy) Yamanaka, a boyish-looking executive with Dunlop Sports International. "That has to change."
Yamanaka was one of the few blunt speakers I encountered in Japan. "I probably shouldn't be saying this," he said one night, craning his neck to catch the reaction of Japan tour chairman Fujio Ishii, who quietly sipped tea at the other end of a long table, "but this tour has to open up to survive. For one thing, the prize money is way too high for the quality of play. If a player wins one tournament he can buy a Mercedes, get a nice apartment and have a couple of girlfriends. He has no incentive to leave Japan and test himself against better players." Having issued this burst of candor in English, Yamanaka repeated his remarks in fluent Korean for the benefit of a journalist from Seoul, and finally in Japanese, which caused Mr. Ishii to lower his teacup and listen intently.
In a Japanese sports newspaper I spied a photograph of a very senior golfer swinging his driver. "He is what we call a kan-reki. It means 'return calendar,' " said my friend Duke Ishikawa, who lives in a Tokyo suburb and travels the world writing about golf. The Chinese and Japanese calendar, he explained, has a 12-year cycle—Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat, etc.—and one's 60th birthday marks the completion of five cycles. "In old times, wars and disease made living to 60 a rare thing, so the kan-reki is treated as someone special, someone reborn. This kan-reki, Sugihara-san, is very special because he still plays on our tour."