Japan loves golf. Even more, Japan loves its golfers.
“I think the Japanese people are very passionate about the game,” says Ai Miyazato, who represents her country with the world No. 8 ranking. “I feel that the Japanese fans have tremendous respect for professional golfers but I really don’t know where it comes from.
“Maybe because golf plays an important role in business in Japan. Every weekend golf is on TV, so I think people are used to having golf in their lives.”
Likewise, golf is accustomed to having Japan as a cornerstone of its world appeal.
This week that fact will be displayed at Kintetsu Kashikojima Country Club in Shima-shi, Mie, Japan when the LPGA’s Mizuno Classic tees off for the 40th consecutive season and 38th year as an official LPGA Tour event.
To appreciate the remarkable passion the game generates in Japan, you must first appreciate the people. The Japanese culture prioritizes being over appearance, substance over sizzle. Although a bit of a stereotype, there is great truth in the notion that the Japanese people are powered by the pursuit of perfection and the patience necessary to achieve it. So a love affair with golf, the imperfect game, should come as no surprise.
“The Japanese culture is one that is very dedicated to whatever it is they do,” LPGA great Annika Sorenstam, a five-time Mizuno Classic winner, said. “Work, golf, etc., they all seem to have an incredible dedication and passion for what they do. I think it is part of their culture to work hard and try to be the best.”
The result is 10 Japanese woman currently rank among the world’s top 50 players. Two are especially noteworthy.
Ai Miyazato is No. 8.
Mika Miyazato is No. 10.
They are the two of the most recognized women in Japan. Both are from Okinawa. Ai is 27 and owns nine LPGA wins and a total of 25 worldwide titles. On three occasions during the 2010 season she held the world No. 1 rankings. Mika is 23 and has two professional career wins, one on the LPGA at this year’s Safeway Classic. Both players established themselves on the Japan LPGA Tour before venturing to the LPGA.
And they are not related.
“Miyazato is pretty common name in Okinawa,” Ai says. “But we are friends. I know her since she was like 10 years old. We know each other long time.”
Offered Mika: “Everybody asks me. ‘Oh, you are Ai’s sister?’ I don't care. It’s OK. I think everybody knows Ai, so I don't know if somebody knows me. But I think it’s lucky. Same last name, just different first name.”
This week, however, the long-running event jointly sanctioned by the U.S.-based LPGA and the LPGA of Japan tours makes everybody feel like family.
“I remember when I was a JLPGA tour member and played the Mizuno Classic,” Ai said. “It felt fun playing with LPGA players. It brings a different atmosphere and at the time felt great playing and seeing players like Annika.”
Japan has long been a golf hotbed.
Its roots in the game date to 1903 when a group of British expatriates established the nation’s first golf club in Kobe. In 1913 the Tokyo Golf club at Komazawa was established for and by native Japanese who had encountered golf in the United States.
However, it was not until the mid-1950s, years after World War II, that the game began to boom. In 1957 Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono won the Canada Cup (now World Cup) in Japan, an event often credited for igniting the country’s passion. By the early 1970s there were over 1,000 courses and players such as Jumbo Ozaki and Isao Aoki were national heroes.
Now Japan is home of some 3,500 golf courses in addition to huge numbers of multi-level practice facilities, and even golf bars, where patrons gather to compete on video simulators.
Until the Japanese economy took a hit in the mid-1990s, golf was treated as a game of upward mobility and social prestige. But now, somewhat freed from its elitist image, golf is enjoying a new popularity boom, and the success of Japanese women on the world stage is one of the prime reasons.
In addition to Ai Miyazato and Mika Miyazato, countrywomen Chie Arimura (19), Sakura Yokomine (32), Miki Saiki (36), Yuri Fudoh (38), Rikako Morita (41), Mayu Hattori (42), Ritsuko Ryu (43) and Yukari Baba (50) all are among the world’s top 50.Also, there is Momoko Ueda, a two-time winner and defending champ of the Mizuno, who in 2007 at age 21 became the youngest player in the history of the Japan LPGA to win the season money title.
From that group, only Saiki and Fudoh are older than 27.
“Unlike the men, the women’s U.S. tour seems much closer for Japanese pros (to achieve) because of recent Ai Miyazato and Mika Miyazato success,” said Reiko Takekawa, a Japanese golf writer based in the United States. “Arimura is from the same high school as Ai.”
The thirst for information about Japanese professional golfers seems insatiable. Japanese media representative flood American tournament press rooms when native players are competing. There is a wealth of Japanese publications, Websites and bloggers devoted to reporting golf. There are even special Japanese editions of Golf Digest magazine and the Golf Channel.
With that obsession also comes pressure. Players often seem to face an unwritten responsibility to represent their country as much as to play for themselves.
“Yes, it seems that Japanese golfers take great pride in competing, not just for themselves but for their country,” Sorenstam said. “The support, especially from the media, is unmatched. When Ai Miyazato first came over, her media following was like that of a rock star here and in Europe. Everyone followed her every move and it had to be difficult. She always handled herself beautifully under a lot of pressure and I admire her for that.”
Across the board, that admiration and support has been earned.
Following Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster, Ai and Mika Miyazato and Ueda organized a relief fundraising organization and began wearing self-designed buttons with Japanese characters that read “Makeruna Nippon,” or “Never Give Up Japan.” They also immediately began donating huge portions of their winnings to help victims.
Soon, many other LPGA players from all nationalities, including world No. 1 Yani Tseng of Taiwan, followed their lead.
“All I can do is just stay in the present and do something like playing really good ... and hopefully get back good news to Japan,” Ai said. “Maybe one of my responsibilities is to provide hope and courage to the Japanese people, but at the same time just be able to deal with the day-to-day tasks as they appear.”
Feel the love.
Topics: Player Feature