Most English-Japanese dictionaries will tell you that the correct translation of smile is egao. Egad, there were a lot of egaos on display on Sunday as Shigeki Maruyama took what almost certainly will be the strongest field between the Masters and the U.S. Open and stuffed it in his back pocket. Maruyama cruised to victory in the Verizon Byron Nelson Classic, finishing at 14-under-par 266 to beat rookie Ben Crane by two shots, Tiger Woods by four and Ernie Els and David Toms by six.
Maruyama, who won in Milwaukee 10 months ago, appears constitutionally incapable of keeping a straight face. He spent four rounds playing for and to the crowds at the TPC Four Seasons Resort, in Irving, Texas. When he was presented with a cowboy hat on Sunday evening, Maruyama put it on, grabbed hold of some imaginary reins and bounced up and down in his chair. His personality spills over the language barrier like a tsunami coming over a seawall. "I wish I could speak some English," Maruyama said through an interpreter after settling back into his chair, "because if I can speak English I could make you laugh harder."
Maruyama, 31, is the first Asian to win two PGA Tour events and is making the Tour look like the American League looked in 2001, when Japanese star Ichiro upstaged the best baseball players in the world. Back home, said Maruyama, who has houses in Chiba, Japan, and Los Angeles, "there's no comparison. Ichiro is a superstar. But I am pretty famous."
"Who is bigger in Japan?" Maruyama was asked. "You or Tiger?"
"In Japan, of course, myself," Maruyama said without hesitation.
Inside the ropes at the Nelson, the 5'7" Maruyama came up bigger, too. In a field that included eight of the top nine players in the World Ranking, Maruyama rushed to the front with a 63 last Friday, then maintained at least a two-stroke lead over the final 36 holes. The only player to close within two of him on Sunday was Crane, 26, whose failure to overtake Maruyama saved him the embarrassment of following up a first win on Tour with a week off. Crane is to be married this Saturday to Heather Heinze in Portland.
The Nelson served as a call to the post for the June 13-16 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black on Long Island. "These three weeks are all really good fields, not even counting Tiger," said Scott Verplank, referring to the Nelson, this week's MasterCard Colonial and the Memorial. "This is the time to check where you're at." The Nelson has also established itself as the place where Woods makes his first post-Masters appearance, an honor the tournament earned because of Woods's fondness for the 90-year-old legend whose name is above the lights. When the Tour announced last week that the Nelson will be played on the third weekend in May next year to make room for a new tournament in Charlotte, the collective blood pressure of the Salesmanship Club—the volunteers who run the Nelson-shot up. Woods annually follows up his Dallas-area appearance by playing in Germany, where he reportedly will receive a $2 million fee to appear in this week's Deutsche Bank-SAP Open, in Heidelberg. The schedule shift sets up a choice between Woods's affection for deutsche marks and his respect for Nelson, who in 1993 invited the then 17-year-old Woods to play in Irving as an amateur. "I would have a hard time saying no to him," Woods said the day before the tournament began, a sentiment he repeated on Sunday.
The quality of the Nelson field is a testament to the players' regard for Lord Byron, as well as their love for—and perhaps fear of—their wives. The women of the PGA Tour love the Four Seasons Resort and Spa for the pampering they receive throughout the week, but as one Tour spouse said last week, referring to the feminine pulchritude for which the Nelson is famous, "Half the wives come here to make sure their husbands don't cheat."
Among the top-ranked golfers who played well at the Nelson was David Duval, whose final-round 67 lifted him into 15th place. In eight years on Tour, Duval has won 13 tournaments and has never finished lower than 11th on the money list, so a 15th-place finish is barely worth mentioning, but for the fact that Duval has yet to have an impressive performance this season. The 2002 Duval left the Nelson ranked 84th in earnings and riding a streak of 10 consecutive starts without a top 10 finish, his longest stretch since a 12-tournament streak in '97. Duval finished that season by winning the last three events of the year and then won eight more over the next two seasons to reach No. 1 in the World Ranking. He began this year ranked third and has since fallen to No. 6. Duval is 30 and over the last three years has suffered back problems, tendinitis in his left wrist and now tendinitis in his right shoulder. The last injury, Duval can laugh about. While snowboarding in Sun Valley, Idaho, in January, Duval took a spill that he describes as a "face plant." When his board caught in the snow, Duval kept going, landing on his face and right shoulder.
"Train wreck?" he was asked.