Pop songs, mafia links and expensive wine are just part of the legend of Japan's greatest player
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Greg Norman was livid. He could be seen raging at officials, but, once again, the Shark was out of his depth. He swore Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki had used a driver to improve his lie before a shot at the Crowns, a tournament on the PGA of Japan Tour. It was 1997, just three years after Norman had accused Ozaki of a similar infraction at another JPGA event. Tournament organizers did nothing then, and they remained stone-faced at Nagoya Golf Club. Norman angrily played on. Ozaki lit another cigarette and captured yet another victory.
Ozaki won a jaw-dropping 94 times on the JPGA, and 114 times worldwide. But since none of them were in the United States or Europe, many are unfamiliar with one of the great characters in the sport’s history. During a recent round, a friend of mine who works in the golf industry attempted to explain to our playing partners the power of Hideki Matsuyama in Japan. “When Japanese pro golfers do anything of significance, it’s on the top of every sports page there,” he said. “When Hideki does something, it’s on the front page of the newspaper.” But has Hideki ever been on the pop charts? Ozaki was so famous during the late 1980s that three singles he released charted in Japan. (Sure, Ozaki spent more time on the range than on voice lessons, but “On the Green” is ridiculous fun.)
In a 2004 ESPN.com column, Bill Simmons coined “the Tyson zone,” a term inspired by Mike Tyson for when a celebrity has done so many bizarre things that people will believe any story about them. Had Simmons been covering Ozaki a decade earlier, the phrase may have been called “the Jumbo zone.” Over the course of his life, Ozaki has been a professional baseball player, been linked to the Japanese mafia, been accused of using hot equipment and non-conforming balls, owned a fleet of sports cars, taken his wine collection north of 1,000 bottles, become an expert in the botanical art of bonsai and, even though some of the heights of his career predated the Official World Golf Ranking, still spent more than 200 weeks inside the top 10.
Beyond even that wild list, Ozaki played with a staggering charisma. He traveled with a massive entourage, flying in a sushi chef from New York to his rental house during Masters weeks. His sartorial flair has reached a status in Japan that no player in the U.S. has ever topped, playing in megawatt neon colors with velour pants and cashmere sweaters. In a long 1989 Sports Illustrated profile, John Garrity marveled, “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.”
Smoking incessantly, with thick sideburns and long hair, Ozaki would tee his ball up high and take mighty lashes, aggressively trying to cut every corner and carry every hazard. “He was a go-for-broke type of player,” Tom Watson said. It’s no surprise his galleries would extend into the thousands. On a 2020 episode of The Shotgun Start podcast devoted to Ozaki, host Brendan Porath relayed a story from Brandel Chamblee. The Golf Channel commentator said that once while playing with Ozaki they were waiting for a green to clear, and Ozaki held up two fingers, like a peace sign. But for Ozaki, it was a different signal: One of his entourage members materialized from the gallery, placing a cigarette in his man’s hand. Chamblee loved it, dubbing Ozaki “Sinatra on spikes.”
Pros like Chamblee would see Ozaki at tournaments like the Dunlop Phoenix and the Taiheiyo Masters, big-money events in the 1980s and ’90s that drew the game’s brightest stars. Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Fred Couples and more got an up-close look at Ozaki, who won three in a row from 1994 to ’97. The Japanese economy was booming back then, and there was great prize money in the JPGA. That and the level of his celebrity kept Ozaki at home. Accusations of cheating and hot equipment aside, there was little doubt that if Ozaki devoted his time to the PGA Tour, he would be a success. But, outside of the majors, of which he recorded only a smattering of top 10s and never really contended, Ozaki never tested the waters abroad. “The Japanese golf world needs me,” he told Garrity.
I got a small taste of Jumbomania in 2011. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame during my tenure working there. Prior to the ceremony, there was real panic within the organization; word had come that hundreds of Japanese media members could descend upon St. Augustine, Florida, for their star’s big moment. As a one-man department in charge of media relations, I began waving red flags for this impending logistical nightmare. Our fears ramped up after the announcement of his selection in Tokyo, where the media crush was intense. One Japanese journalist earnestly told me Ozaki was as if Arnold Palmer and Elvis Presley were rolled into one person. But, just as he did throughout his career, Ozaki ended up valuing his homeland most, and he remained in Japan for the ceremony.
Ozaki wasn’t wrong about Japanese golf needing him. A generation of stars leading up to Matsuyama all point to him as an influence. I would take it a step further and say the entire golf world needs more characters like him. (Norman, a Hall of Fame grudge holder, would likely disagree.) At the conclusion of his story, Garrity pondered what could have been had Ozaki taken on the PGA Tour. But, with the benefit of time, it now feels like such an attempt could have muddied the legend. Icons like Ozaki were never meant to go from one hotel to the next in search of someone else’s glory. So while he goes into his twilight years with a freshly clipped bonsai and a glass of Bordeaux, we are left to ponder how much more fun golf would be if someone on the PGA Tour would go into the recording studio.