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Land of the rising daughters

Golf is Japan's latest boom, and the imports, led by Chako Higuchi, have already hit the LPGA tour

It was just a few weeks ago that America's ambassador of conviviality, Henry The K, visited Japan, blithely continuing to loosen the country's diplomatic posture from straitlaced to unlaced. But when it comes to exporting, the Japanese are hard to beat. They sent a quartet of swinging ambassadors of their own over here, all of them with low handicaps.

Four Japanese women golfers competed on the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour this year and did quite well. The arrival of the Japanese women was hardly a shock, for their countrymen have been making inroads into international golf for some time. When Pete Nakamura won the World Cup in Tokyo in 1957, golf in Japan began to match the country's postwar industrial boom. Then, six years ago, the World Cup was held in Tokyo again, and this time Hideyo Sugimoto tied George Knudson for individual honors before losing in a playoff. Suddenly the fervent Japanese were really ready to take to the sticks. Today there are about 650 golf courses in the country, most of them in the less-populated mountainous regions. The courses are not nearly numerous enough to permit all of Japan's 10 million golfers to tee up, but many of them are content to "play" their games at the capacious driving range complexes.

The country now has two outstanding men professionals, Takaaki Kono and Masashi Ozaki, both of whom participated in the 1972 Masters. It has the fastest-growing major professional golf tour in the world—prize money has risen from $270,000 to $1.15 million in three years. And it will host this year's richest golf tournament anywhere, a $300,000 event in October. The $60,000 winner's purse may make even the most jaded American professional buy himself a ticket on Japan Air Lines.

And now Japanese women are turning out to be more than caddies. "After the war two things got stronger in Japan: nylon stockings and women," says Steve Kawaguchi, the interpreter who traveled with the Japanese girl golfers throughout their three-month stay in America. "'Women's Liberation is not so well organized in Japan, but there are many henpecked husbands in Japan."

Two of the players, Chako Higuchi and Marbo Sasaki, are sponsored by R. K. Mizuno Sporting Goods, the world's fourth largest sporting equipment company. The firm pays all their expenses and the golfers keep their winnings. It was this pair's third visit to America, and this time they brought along a pair of promising associates, Sayoko Yamazaki and Etsuko Nakamura, both 25. Suddenly LPGA golf scores began to look as if newspaper typesetting machines had revolted.

Last week Miss Sasaki and Miss Higuchi returned to Japan. Yamazaki and Nakamura already were back in the country, having left before the U.S. Women's Open two weeks ago. Their tour had proved both disappointing and agreeable. The newcomers did reasonably well. Miss Yamazaki was among the leaders for three rounds in the LPGA Championship before a bad last day dropped her into a tie for 16th. The more experienced Misses Higuchi and Sasaki had mixed results. Miss Sasaki won nearly $1,700 in the seven tournaments she played, but Miss Higuchi was suffering from the aftereffects of an appendectomy she had in March and won only $1,200 in four tournaments. Last year she collected almost $10,000 in 10 American events and finished second in the Heritage Open; her average money won per tournament was exceeded by only eight U.S. professionals. She is regarded as the top woman golfer in Japan and has won the Japanese Women's Open three times since the women's division of the Japanese PGA was formed in 1967. The women's PGA has approximately 60 members, and there are four tournaments a year, with the top purse $6,000.

One thing the Japanese girls have not brought to the U.S. is a classic form. Only Miss Sasaki swings the golf club in the generally accepted American manner, with her head anchored in one position. The other three all take the club back in a precise swaying motion, pause momentarily at the top of their swings, and then sway back into the shot with a delicate, perfectly timed movement. The three nonconformists all get respectable distances from their shots.

"They violate every rule we've been taught," says Dede Owens, an American professional, "but they're fantastic wedge players. And I think Higuchi would rather be in a trap than on the green."

The Japanese are only average in size when compared to American women, but they are considered giants in their own country. Miss Sasaki, who is 5'6", complains she cannot find a Japanese man as tall as she. In turn, the women are awed by the size of some of the LPGA players, a few of whom approach or top six feet. And they are also struck by the fact that so many of the past-30 players on the American tour still are good golfers. "When we talk about viewing Mickey Wright from a Japanese sense, she is regarded as an old lady but she still has great power," says Miss Sasaki about Miss Wright, who is only in her mid-30s.

"When I came here for the first time," says Miss Higuchi, "there was a tournament in St. Louis and I played with JoAnne Carner. I was awed by how far she can hit the ball—further than the Japanese men pros."

None of the players speaks English fluently, but each has a limited understanding of the language. On the course Japanese and Americans engage in a lot of hand waving to indicate whose turn it is to play a shot. Still, with their limited vocabulary the visitors are able to compliment their competitors on good shots and commiserate with them on poor luck. They also understand when asked about pars, birdies or bogeys; the terms are the same in Japanese as they are in English.

Sometimes the language barrier is useful, as when the visitors are bothered excessively by male admirers or when they are perplexed by personal questions. They frequently fib about their ages during interviews, Marbo claiming to be 25 years old while Chako says she is only 23. However, Chako is really 26 and Marbo is 28. "Every American player doesn't tell her true age either," shrugs their interpreter.

As of now, a major invasion of Japanese women is not expected on the LPGA circuit. "The expense for coming over here is big," explains Chako. "For players without sponsorship it is financially difficult to afford traveling here."

Besides the expense, one of the basic problems for the visitors is finding a place to eat. "Every time we visit a different city the first job is to find a Japanese restaurant," says their interpreter. "It is especially important for them to eat Japanese food on the day before a tournament because they need good food for power."

Only now, after three visits to America, are the veterans settling into a comfortable routine. They are able to communicate to some extent with their competitors and the gallery. They know how to work the coin-operated washers and driers at the laundromats, and they can order power-packed American foods when unable to find a Japanese restaurant. There is one remaining problem. They have not yet won an LPGA tournament. The day will come, swaying backswing and all.