Jumbo Ozaki- Playing With A Legend
The Japan PGA Tour was lucrative and close in proximity to Australia. I could hop a flight from Melbourne or Sydney at 10pm in the evening and after some sleep and a 9 hour flight be touching down in Tokyo the very next morning- with only a one hour time change. It really was simple travel except for the distance involved.
After a series of qualifying schools - SIX in fact!!!- three qualifying schools to become a member of the Japanese PGA players section and another three qualifying events to get a ranking number to qualify for the events I was ready to begin my Japan PGA experience. Funnily enough these qualifying events took place once the season proper had already begun. So when I did finally emerge from all those grueling rounds the season was just above half over. Which didn't really bode well for players coming from the qualifying process to make the Top 60 of the money list to be exempt again for the following season.
So in the summer of 1992 my rank and file number earned me a succession of starts on the JPGA Tour. Life in Japan was very different. Language issues- an entirely different smorgasbord of food than I was accustomed to and hilly courses way outside the normal city limits due to rations of space (where the cities were the important areas for farming- rather than for sport and recreation). It was not uncommon to have to travel for 60-90 minutes from the hotel to the golf course on many weeks. I do remember paying $500 each way in a taxi to one event up in Sapporo. We did however learn to work out the train system to be able to get somewhere near the venue and then get a short taxi ride the remainder of the way. It didn't save much time but it helped save money doing it that way.
After a few cuts made and a few average finishes as I acclimatized to a whole different style of travel and play I put in an S.O.S call to my friend in Australia to see if he would come up for a few weeks to caddie for me. Up until then many events required the usage of a club caddie- which also sometimes meant all three sets of clubs of each player in the group being motorized around a rail or sensor track by just one caddie. That was pretty lonely having no-one to talk to- complain to and also have to yell in Japanese the club you wanted sometimes 10-15 yards away from where your bag was situated.
Andrew "Eddie" Edwards had caddied for me when I won the Australian Masters in 1993 and when I won The Players Championship in 1996. Not only was he a good caddie for me, we grew up playing together in junior golf so we had a long term understanding of each other and my game.
Our first tournament was full of excitement. The Daiwa KBC Augusta tournament in Fukuoka was a long standing event and after opening rounds of 70-69 I was right in the mix at 5 under par for two days. Having Eddie beside me was a real calming effect. It was nice to have someone on my "team" for the first time in an event. As luck would have it I was paired with Japanese PGA legend Masashi "Jumbo" Ozaki for the third round.
I always enjoyed playing with great players. Whilst nervous when meeting them and even for the first hole or so, I always had the ideology that playing with great players was an opportunity for me to show them something special- rather than me getting lost in their game.
The round was a bit of a blur but I vividly recall walking from the 10th green up the hill towards the 11th tee- after my tenth one putt in a row!!!- and Jumbo walking up behind me and putting his arm around my shoulder, looking me straight in the eye and saying- "Hughes-san you putt better than F$&king Aoki" and both laughing as we reached the next tee. See there was that something special I had wanted to receive from such a player!!!
I had a great day shooting a 6 under par 66- capped off with another 14 foot birdie on the last home. Jumbo could only manage a 1 under par 71 and I now held the lead going into the final round.
Unfortunately I would lose in a playoff the next day to TM Chen- the brother of TC Chen (who also played the Japanese Tour while I was there). The same TC Chen who infamously struck his ball twice in the rough on a chip shot at the 1985 US Open whilst holding a commanding lead. He would ultimately lose by just 1 stroke to Andy North as a result of that penalty shot and quadruple bogey 8 when he looked likely to become Asia's first Major Champion.
Jumbo Ozaki and I would again duel up together the following year in The Suntory Open- on the outskirts of Tokyo. This time in the final round in the final group.
I had birdied the 18th hole of Saturday's third round to snatch a one shot lead, with Jumbo right there behind me. This would end up being an eerie day and a lost opportunity.
The meteorologists in Japan were quite famous for their weather predictions. They could literally predict what minute a storm would start and end and rarely ever get their forecasts incorrect. Until this day in September 1993.
Several people had come up to me to congratulate me on my birdie to end Saturday's third round. I was unsure why until it was explained that a huge weather system- a typhoon (as they called it) was predicted to hit the area late Saturday evening and this was going to all but guarantee that Sunday's final round would not eventuate. Why is that important? Because in Japan a washout is a washout. They don't attempt to make up rounds or finish on Monday's. For all intent and purposes there was a huge likelihood that I would be declared the winner the following day due to the fact that no golf would be played.
Now I am not sure if that made me lose some focus or grand visions of winning on the Japan PGA Tour entered my head but when we awoke the next day- the area was bathed in brilliant sunshine and there was no threat of bad weather whatsoever. Neither Jumbo or myself set the world on fire that day- both shooting 1 under par 71's and finishing in 5th and 6th position. I am sure I let things get ahead of me and was a bit shaken up when the weather was ideal rather than the armageddon they had predicted. But it was still a fun day to be right there alongside Jumbo Ozaki in the heat of the battle for a big tournament.
Jumbo was and is a true legend in Japan. He even played professional baseball for The Lions of Japan before embarking on his golf career. He would still win events into his late fifties on the tour and wound up winning a record 94 Japanese PGA Tour events when his career was all said and done.
His two brothers Tateo "Jet" and Naomichi "Joe"- who I also had the opportunity to play with- were also stand out players in Japan and on the United States PGA Tour taking almost another 50 Tour wins between them to the Ozaki name.
Masashi "Jumbo" Ozaki was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011. What a treat and what an experience to be able to compete against and know one of the world's truly great players of his time.