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John Garrity
April 06, 1998
In his homeland Jumbo Ozaki is the undisputed king of golf. So why can't he get respect any where else?
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April 06, 1998

A Giant In Japan

In his homeland Jumbo Ozaki is the undisputed king of golf. So why can't he get respect any where else?

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You don't finish the thought. It's like arguing that a koi—one of the colorful carp in the hotel garden pool—could devour a shark.

His real name is Masashi Ozaki, and he's the eldest of three brothers from Tokushima prefecture, in southwestern Japan, who play pro golf. In his teens he was the star pitcher for the spring national champion Kainan High team, which in Japan bestows status comparable to that of the quarterback of a U.S. national champion college football team. He was introduced to golf by the golf-mad manager of the Nishitetsu Lions pro baseball club, the team Ozaki signed with in 1967.

"There's a Jumbo, and there's a Masashi," Ozaki says, making a distinction between the showman and the inner man. Jumbo emerged about 30 years ago while Ozaki was teaching himself the game, and burst full-blown on the scene when he gave up baseball for tournament golf at age 22. "From the beginning I wanted to look good. to wear good clothes, to be in the spotlight."

To behave, in other words, in a distinctly un-Japanese manner. Jumbo's hair—a shag cut that spills down his neck—sets him apart. You see such hair behind the wheel of a flashy car after midnight in one of Tokyo's bawdy soapland districts.

Masashi, on the other hand, lives outside Tokyo with his wife, Yoshiko, and their three children. His walled estate—a palace by Japanese standards—has a backyard driving range and a garage for his collection of classic cars.

When Jumbo goes abroad, he travels with an entourage, what the Japanese call a kobun. At the Masters he rents a large house and flies in a sushi chef from New York. "He is the Arnold Palmer of Japan," says Sadao Iwata, the country's best-known television golf commentator. "Golfers here dress like him, buy the equipment he plays, smoke the same brand of cigarettes."

Westerners don't get it. Jumbo has finished no better than a tie for eighth in the Masters, and that was back in '73. He has missed the cut seven times, missed the entire tournament from 1980 through '86, and has shot several rounds of 78 and higher. His best showings in the other majors are equally drab: a 47th in the '94 PGA, a tie for sixth in the '89 U.S. Open and a 14th in the '78 British Open. Admittedly, Ozaki has never pursued those trophies with the intensity of, say, a Jack Nicklaus or a Nick Faldo.

It's startling, then, to talk with Americans who play the Japanese tour—golfers who see a different Ozaki. "He's unbelievable, a big hitter with a fantastic short game," says Todd Hamilton, who was a star at Oklahoma. "Guys from the States wonder why he's ranked so high, but you don't see many of the famous players beating him when they play here. He makes the putts Nicklaus used to make, the ones to keep a round going."

Peter Teravainen, who joined the Japanese tour in 1996 after 14 years on the European tour, practically erupts when it is suggested that Ozaki isn't as good as his ranking. "I get so pissed off at the golf magazines in the U.S. and Europe that say Jumbo is no good. They never get off their butts and come here to see him play."

Ozaki fans can point to more than testimonial evidence. When he won the Dunlop Phoenix Invitational in 1996, beating the cream of Asian golfers and a score of top international players, it was Jumbo's 100th pro victory. (It also marked his third straight title in that tournament, Japan's richest.) Last year, when he could have been playing Senior golf, Ozaki won five more Japanese tour events (one by 12 shots), including an unprecedented sixth JPGA Championship, and led the Japanese money list for the 11th time. "Anytime you win a hundred tournaments, you can flat play," says Tom Watson.

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