It was a smile that lit up the golf world. In three days Shigeki Maruyama's toothy exuberance announced him not only as a rising international star but also as one of the most likable characters in the game. Maruyama's putter may have been hotter than wasabi during last month's Presidents Cup, in which he went 5-0 to lead the Internationals to their stunning upset, but the instrument that left the most lasting impression was that ever-present grin. Nick Price called it infectious, and even one of the losing Americans, Lee Janzen, said, "Watching how much fun he was having, how could you not love that?"
But if Maruyama's pearly whites are now recognized from Melbourne to Minneapolis, the man behind all that enamel remains something of a mystery. Last week Maruyama washed ashore at the Sony Open in Hawaii—the first of what could be as many as a dozen appearances in the States this year—and his first tournament since the Presidents Cup offered the chance to find answers to a few lingering questions. To wit: Could Maruyama possibly be as charming as he seems? Was his performance Down Under a fluke? And now that the world tour is a reality, will he become the first Japanese golfer to make a ripple on these shores?
Maruyama is not sitting on top of the world, it only feels that way. The view from his balcony, on the top floor of one of Honolulu's swankiest hotels, begins at Diamond Head and stretches the length of Waikiki Beach. Maruyama's perch is worthy of Japanese golf's new ichiban (No. 1). His recent heroics received unprecedented attention back home, and just trying to negotiate the hotel lobby and its many Japanese tourists has been a daily reminder for Maruyama of his newly elevated status. "It has gotten ridiculous," he says. Actually, that's what a translator says, as Maruyama's English is limited mostly to the names of items on a McDonald's menu. But even with the language barrier there is something in his manner that conveys his astonishment at just how far he has come.
Maruyama, 29, was born and raised in Chiba, outside Tokyo. His father, Mamoru, was the co-owner of a book publishing company, a scratch golfer and a member of Tsuchiura Country Club, in Ibaraki. Mamoru imparted invaluable instruction to his son, beginning when Shigeki was nine. At 11 the pint-sized Maruyama gained a measure of renown when he shot an even-par 72 at 6,700-yard Tsuchiura. Still it wasn't until the following year, 1981, that "I dedicated my life to golf," he says. The epiphany came as he watched a television image of a victorious Tom Watson walking up the final fairway at Augusta National. "He had the biggest smile I had ever seen," says Maruyama. "He looked so happy, and that stayed with me for a very long time. I wanted one day to feel like that."
After a smashing amateur career, Maruyama turned pro in 1992. He won his first tournament the following season, but his breakthrough year didn't come until 1997, when he won three times in Japan, finished 10th at the British Open and then hogged the top of the leader board at the PGA Championship at Winged Foot for two days before finishing 23rd. At that point Maruyama was already one of Japan's most popular athletes, and his golfing exploits were only part of the reason. Throughout the early years of his career he had been a regular guest on the popular TV variety show Yume-ga-MoriMori (translation: Lots of Dreams), on which he did everything from comic sketches to dead-on impersonations of the world's top golfers. "I promise you, Shigeki could be a professional comic if he wanted," says his agent, Hal Tsunezumi. "He has a natural gift for reaching out to people."
These days Maruyama is seen frequently on TV, but primarily in commercials for five companies, including multinationals such as Bridgestone, Coca-Cola and Toyota. According to Sadao Iwata, the doyen of Japanese golf commentators, no other Japanese athlete can touch Maruyama's domestic marketability, and that's just one way of quantifying his popularity.
Maruyama has been embraced by his countrymen not only for who he is but also for who he is not—namely, Jumbo Ozaki, who has dominated the Japanese golf scene for more than a quarter century. Ozaki, 52, has been accused of cheating by Greg Norman, among others, and it's often whispered that he once had ties to the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Equally damaging to Ozaki's reputation in golf circles have been his pathetic showings in international events, notably the majors. Ozaki has won more than 100 tournaments in Japan and led the Japanese money list 11 times, including last year, but his only victory outside his home country came in the 1972 New Zealand PGA. Ozaki's status was further diminished last fall when, after qualifying for the Presidents Cup, he declined to play for the International team. "Why he hasn't played well overseas is the great mystery of the world," says Maruyama. Asked if he feels any extra pressure to succeed because Ozaki hasn't, Maruyama coyly responds, "He has his style, I have mine."
Maruyama calls Ozaki "a second father." Ozaki, unfazed by Maruyama's so-so '98 season on the Japanese tour—he finished seventh on the money list and won only once—has publicly designated Maruyama as his successor. Maruyama is surprisingly blas� about the passing of the torch. "In his generation to be Number 1 in Japan was what mattered," Maruyama says. "If I played every tournament there [he has won eight], if all I cared about was the Japanese money list, I could be Number 1 too. However, it is a global game now, and I want to play all over."
Particularly in the U.S. "I love America," he says, which isn't particularly difficult to ascertain. Over the course of an hour and a half interview, Maruyama wolfed down a Big Mac and fries, pounded two Cokes, smoked half a pack of Parliaments and proudly showed off his brand-new Air Jordans. His entertainment tastes have also been made in the USA. He calls Mariah Carey his favorite singer and Die Hard his favorite movie, although, he concedes, "as long as a few buildings blow up, I'm happy. I don't like romantic stuff like Titanic because I cry easily, and then people laugh at me." (The Winslet to Maruyama's DiCaprio is his high school sweetheart, now his wife, Mizuho, who increases his comfort in the States with her fluent English.)
Even Maruyama's game is Americanized. "He hits driver off almost every tee, just bombs it," says Janzen. In Hawaii he averaged 283 yards on his drives. Along with Scott Hoch, Janzen lost a foursomes match to Maruyama and Craig Parry at the Presidents Cup. The next day Maruyama and partners Parry, in the morning, and Joe Ozaki, in the afternoon, beat the teams of Fred Couples and Tiger Woods, and David Duval and Phil Mickelson, respectively. "He has such good touch around the greens and with the putter mat he's not afraid to take the risk because he knows he can get it up and down," adds Janzen, who plays two or three times a year in Japan. "I wasn't surprised by his performance in Melbourne because he always plays that way when I see him. He's got the best motion of any of the Japanese players. He has effortless power. Physically he can certainly be a world-class player. But only he knows what he's got in his heart."