From Left – Isao Aoki in action in 1982; in action at the Pro Am at Zozo in 2020 and inset with Hideki Matsuyama at Zozo Championship. Pic: Getty Images
The glint in the eyes and enduring smile have remained the same. So too have the charisma and passion that are hallmarks which have defined Isao Aoki as one of golf’s living legends following an illustrious career.
Now 80 years young, the Japanese octogenarian is still in the forefront of the game where he now serves as chairman of the Japan Golf Tour Organisation. While others his age may prefer a simpler lifestyle, Aoki chooses to attend board meetings, play in tournament Pro-Ams and continues to walk the driving range to keep in touch with today’s generation of stars.
Aoki’s place in golf’s annals is eternally cemented when he became the first Asian and Japanese male golfer to taste victory on the PGA TOUR, where this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii marks the 40th anniversary of his stunning win at Waialae Country Club, Honolulu in 1983.
His mind is still as sharp as his much-touted short game, which fellow World Golf Hall of Famer Chi Chi Rodriguez once declared: “I’ve never seen a putting stroke like his in my lifetime … the king of the jabbers!”
It was Aoki’s deft touch which helped produce a memorable triumph over Jack Renner some four decades ago. With the American holding a one-shot clubhouse lead, the six-foot tall Aoki pulled off a shot for the ages on the 72nd hole, a par-5, by holing out a 128-yard wedge shot from thick rough for an improbable eagle to secure his lone PGA TOUR victory.
“It was a significant milestone for me,” said Aoki, whose illustrious resume includes 51 Japan Golf Tour wins, one European Tour title and the 1978 World Match Play crown.
“It was a sensational event, birthing the first Japanese player to win on the PGA TOUR. It was around my 10th year of playing on the international stage and winning the Sony Open represented my motivation and challenging spirit to compete in Europe and the U.S.”
This week’s Sony Open in Hawaii holds added significance for Japan as Hideki Matsuyama, who became the nation’s first male major winner when he won the Masters in 2021, is the defending champion. Like Aoki, Matsuyama also made a glorious eagle on the 18th hole during a playoff against Russell Henley to secure his eighth PGA TOUR victory last year. While Aoki holed out with his third, Matsuyama’s heroics came courtesy of a magnificent 3 wood shot which landed three feet of the hole for his winning eagle putt.
Aoki remembers being glued to his TV set as he watched Matsuyama match his Hawaiian heroics which saw the latter equal Korean K.J. Choi’s eight victories on the PGA TOUR, the most by an Asian golfer. “I think we both left a strong impression in a good way. It was extremely touching to hear Hideki say in his speech he was very happy to add his name to the tournament’s history where I had won previously,” said Aoki.
Before Matsuyama, there were Shigeki Maruyama and Ryuji Imada, who won a combined four times on the PGA TOUR in the early 2000s. Aoki reckons the game is now in safe hands with the 30-year-old Matsuyama inspiring a new group of Japanese golfers, who include Keita Nakajima and Taiga Semikawa, both former world amateur No. 1s, and Kazuki Higa, winner of the Japan Golf Tour’s money list last year. The trio are also in this week’s field which commemorates with Sony’s 25th anniversary as title sponsor.
“My victory served as one of the catalysts for the future generations to dream big and challenge in the U.S. It was a good thing,” Aoki said. “There have been many ‘senpai’ (seniors) … maybe myself included, that have gone on to play the game. Nowadays, we are seeing a 10, or perhaps a five-year cycle for success amongst Japanese golfers. I would like to see more youngsters win early in their careers to gain confidence and succeed on the global stage.
“From a skills standpoint, they are on par with American or European players. It all comes down to their mindset. Today’s game is also different from when we used to play … it is now the power era. I really hope to see our young Japanese players’ hard work materializing into greater results.”
Whenever the topic turns back to the 1983 Sony Open in Hawaii, Aoki feels a great sense of pride in becoming the first Asian winner on the globe’s elite circuit. “Throughout my career, I won a few times in Japan and Europe. But winning the Sony Open was very special. Our Japanese nation has idolized Hawaii as the ‘islands of everlasting summer.’ For me to be able to earn a victory there, it was a turning point in my life,” said Aoki, whose best finish in major was at the 1980 U.S. Open where he finished runner-up to Jack Nicklaus.
Aoki remembers going against his caddie’s advice prior to the life-changing shot. “My caddie said ‘Isao, it has to be a 9-iron or it will come up short.’ I said no and chose the pitching wedge and I was hoping to land the ball between the green edge and the pin for a chance to make birdie (for a play-off). Because of this mindset, I was able to make a good swing and the ball went into the cup after one bounce. I also think it was a gift from God.
“The fact that I holed out with that club says so much about the amount of adrenaline that was running through my body. Watching it again, it was definitely my best swing ever. I was struggling to hit straight that day so I was hitting the wedge a lot. I felt confident hitting that club, which may have resulted in a hole out. As I made my way up to the green, I was in shock. I remember picking up the ball from the cup in a daze. Maybe I was able to swing my best swing because I had my favourite club in my hands! I still have it (the wedge) with me.”
From his years of traversing the globe’s airways to compete on the finest fairways, Aoki is ever ready to share pearls of wisdom with the new generation of Japanese players. He also reiterated the importance of the ‘senpai’ culture amongst Japanese golfers. Simply translated, ‘senpai’ means ‘senior’ and is a natural and respectful way of referring to someone who is older or a mentor.
“While there are struggles in every period of time, I hope everyone finds a way to leave a mark of their own. Because of you, there may be a next generation that gets inspired to follow in your footstep. Similar to Hideki reflecting on my victory, I hope the inspiration get passed down from generation to generation. I am now 80 years old. As long as you avoid injuries, you can have a very long relationship with the game of golf. I wish to continue to pass down the inspirations for many more players, while maintaining my health,” he said.
Note: The writer is senior director, marketing and communications for the PGA TOUR and is based in Malaysia.