In the days of old Hollywood, Laurence Olivier at his handsome,
tragically romantic Heathcliff best would have starred in the
Hisayuki Sasaki story, eyes made up faux-Asian, brooding and
purposeful behind a mask of cigarette smoke.
Having already won the hearts of Japanese fans while
establishing himself as his country's most promising player,
Sasaki last fall followed an eye-opening performance in the
World Cup, where he extended Davis Love III to five holes of
sudden death, by taking a stab at the PGA Tour. The first step
was securing a Tour card, which Sasaki did by finishing 15th at
Q school. The next was measuring himself against the world's
best players in competition, which, after failing to gain entry
into four events and making a false start at Pebble Beach,
Sasaki was finally able to do last week in Hawaii.
He wasn't the only one wondering how he would stack up. Sensing
that he might be the same kind of breakthrough player as Los
Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo, Japanese journalists are
giving Sasaki's quest considerable coverage back home. In
Hawaii, even Sadao Iwata, considered the most-esteemed member of
the Japanese sports media, was on hand along with about 45 other
reporters from Japan--three times the normal number at a Tour
event--to chronicle Sasaki's 55th-place finish.
Though the 31-year-old Sasaki has been ascending for years on
the Japanese tour, it is his personal history as much as his
game that has captivated Japan. Orphaned at age five--Sasaki is
unwilling to talk about his parents--he was raised by an uncle
who belonged to a golf club. Turning pro at 22, Sasaki was
making steady, if unspectacular, progress until February 1994,
when his infant son, Yusuke, died of a heart disorder. Sasaki's
world crumbled and he drank heavily. Months passed, but he
finally rededicated himself to golf and emerged as a stronger,
and virtually nerveless, player.
Mixing religion and golf, Sasaki wore a juzu, a beaded Buddhist
bracelet, around his wrist until he won his first tournament,
the 1994 Japan Series, which is a Japanese major. He dedicated
the win to his son and placed the juzu in a temple to honor the
In 1995 Sasaki won another major, the Japan PGA, and he widened
his horizons. He qualified for the British Open, where he
finished 31st, the World Series (37th) and the World Cup. Then
he decided to take on the Tour.
"My sole goal is to get better. That's why I came to America,"
says Sasaki, who became only the second active Japanese member
of the Tour, joining four-year veteran Joe Ozaki. He claims to
feel no pressure--the memory of his son dwarfs any exigency in
golf--and many observers think he has the right combination of
temperament and ambition to succeed in the U.S.
Q school gave Sasaki an idea of what that would take. A burst of
wind and rain in the middle of his first round led to a 74 at
Florida's Bear Lakes. Given the conditions, he expected to be in
the middle of the pack. Instead, he found himself in 153rd
place. A 64 on the second day saved him from a quick trip home.
"What makes it difficult in America is that in good conditions
they shoot 64 and in bad conditions 67," says Sasaki. And
because of his relatively low exempt status, just getting into
tournaments has been another learning experience. "The system is
good for the good players," he says, "but it's tough for guys
like me who are still trying to grab for the American dream."
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Sasaki's success on the course and tragedy off it have drawn the interest of Japanese fans. [Hisayuki Sasaki]