SI Vault
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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Today, Jumbo's legs are wrapped in green baize. His tailor must have stripped a pool table for the cloth. Jumbo's sweater comes to the Dunlop Phoenix here in Kyushu, Japan, by way of Las Vegas. Swirls of aqua and silver on black cashmere suggest peacock feathers against a night sky.

Jumbo's gallery is two or three thousand strong, lining the fairway and treading on pine needles, a silent army in the trees. Jumbo's ball rests on a white tee, a good four inches off the sweet green turf.

Jumbo's cigarette touches his lips. When he exhales, smoke plumes past his bold sideburns and unblinking eyes. Jumbo's caddie stands by, holding a leather pouch of sand. He will douse the cigarette when Jumbo is ready. Jumbo's tight-lipped smile suggests boredom. Or menace.

Here, in Japan, Jumbo is huge. He is the rising sun on the white flag. His feet leave permanent footprints. His muttered jokes bring smiles to spectators 400 yards away, as if transmitted over the gallery ropes.

He is ichiban (No. 1). Here, in Japan.

Out there, it's different. The golfer from Australia, the so-called Shark, thinks Ozaki-san is a cheat. Players in Europe whisper that Jumbo uses illegal equipment. The Americans sneer at his World Ranking, which is 10th despite his age, 51, and at his reluctance to play much outside Asia. Visitors to Japan eat up minors mat Jumbo is a member or fellow traveler of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

"If I can get my hands on one of his golf balls, I bet I can sell it back to him for a bundle," says an American caddie. "Everybody says he uses a hot ball."

"What's he ever won?" asks an American sports-writer. "The Osaka Seaweed Invitational?"

"No way is Jumbo better than Mark O'Meara or Steve!" says an American pro fighting to keep his PGA Tour card.

Have they actually seen him play? Not exactly. A swing or two at the Masters. On the range at the British Open. What matters is the record, and the record shows that Jumbo Ozaki has never won a major championship. Never even threatened. But here, in Japan....

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