In 1989, I was invited to play a series of tournaments on the Japan GolfTour. Having lost my PGA Tour card a year earlier, I had few other options, so I packed my bags and flew east. I arrived in Tokyo just after the New Year and played a few warm-up events on the outskirts of that magnificent city. It was during one of those rounds that I first played with Naomichi Ozaki.
Naomichi, or Joe, as he was known, was a world-class player, although like many Japanese pros he rarely showcased his talents outside of Japan. What sticks with me from that day was Joe's fearlessness with his driver on an impossibly tight course. One hole had O.B. left and a hazard right (which for no obvious reason was also marked as O.B.), leaving a 20-yard chute to squeeze the ball through. Joe ripped driver, the club slamming off his back on his follow-through, and the ball bounded through the gap. Never had I witnessed such a gaudy display of confidence and precision. Joe had won four times in 1988, and in the three events I played in Japan in '89, he finished 2nd, 1st and 2nd.
Joe was the youngest of three golf-playing brothers. The middle brother, Tateo, went by Jet. I played with Jet in the third round of the 1987 British Open at Muirfield. He was taller and thinner than Joe, and although he didn't play with the same confidence, he was awesome to watch. A throng of Japanese reporters and photographers chronicled his every move.
As good as Jet and Joe were, however, they couldn't touch their big brother, Masashi, aka Jumbo. The man was a god in Japan. He had started his professional sports career as a baseball pitcher but switched to golf when he was 23. He taught himself to play by reading Jack Nicklaus's book Golf My Way and by watching the Golden Bear on TV. He would go on to lead the Japanese money list 12 times.
In 1988, Jumbo won five titles and his brothers combined for six, meaning that of the 39 Japan tour events that year, the Ozakis claimed more than a quarter of them. During one stretch, the trio won three times in four weeks.
I finally played with Jumbo in 1999, during the first two rounds of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Although he was 52 then and would win only twice more after that year, Jumbo still had that detached aura unique to superstars. He had an entourage, too, before it was fashionable to have one. His posse would stroll inside the ropes with him, serving him drinks, cigarettes and whatever else he desired. On one tee box, as we waited for the group ahead of us to putt out, Jumbo stuck out two fingers at his side in the shape of a peace sign. Within seconds, one of his handlers placed a lit cigarette between his index and middle finger. In his designer slacks and alligator-skin shoes, Jumbo raised the smoke to his lips and drew long and hard. He was Sinatra in spikes.
At the end of his career, Jumbo had won 94 times; that's 43 more wins than Isao Aoki, who is second on the all-time win list in Japan. (Oddly, Aoki was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame seven years before Jumbo.) Joe is fourth on the all-time win list with 32 titles, and Jet is 13th with 15. That's a staggering 141 victories among them.
I doubt I would've appreciated the exploits of these three brothers had I not ventured to Japan in 1989, so I'm glad I did. They were a force to behold. When I hear historians discussing golf's greatest lineages—the Turnesas, say, or the Harmons—rarely do they mention the Ozakis. That's a shame, because, in my mind, Jumbo, Joe and Jet are the finest progeny this game has ever produced.