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Japanese and Americans share golfing fascination

There were two stories at this year's US Open golf championship. The first, of course, was simply Jack Nicklaus's emotional triumph. The secod was the manner in which Isao Aoki captivated the American galleries.

Americans are not used to seeing Japanese golfers contend for major US titles , and certainly not one with such a strange, punch-like swing. Seeing Aoki (pronounced AH-oaki) in action must have left millions curious about golf in Japan.

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Is a shipment of golfing imports on its way from that country? And if so, will they all be as unorthodox as the Open runner-up?

Actually Japanese players, most of whom own classical swings, have slipped on and off the American tour for years now. Seldom, however, have they won enough money to make heads turn. In fact, during all of last year, Aoki earned just $ 10,841 playing in six US events, while Jumbo Ozaki, Japan's other superstar, made even less. By contrast, Tom Watson, the 1979 money-winning leader, pocketed $462,636.

Taken separately, the American incomes of Japanese players can be quite misleading. Aoki, for example, reportedly earned about $1 million during the past two years, primarily playing on the Far Eastern tour. Most Asian golfers prefer to concentrate their efforts on this circuit, which is much more lucrative than it once was, and doesn't involve the incredible expenses of a US sojourn.

Several Japanese women annually grace the LPGA tour. They generally limit their visit to a half dozen or so West Coast tournaments, some of which have Japanese connections (such as the Honda Civic Classic in San Diego). The most famous member of this female contingent is Chako Higuchi, the 1977 LPGA champion , who coincidentally is known for her peculiar, swaying swing.

Long before Higuchi or Aoki ever made their marks on the international scene, Pete Nakamura started the Japanese golf craze rolling. In 1957 he won individual World Cup honors and joined with partner Koichi Ono to beat American stars Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret for the team title. The competition, held outside Tokyo, stimulated millions to take up the game.

Today Japan's love affair with the golf is almost legendary. Perhaps the most visible symbol of the game's prosperity is the triple-tiered driving range in downtown Tokyo.

Altogether Japan has more than 5,000 driving ranges, 600 in Tokyo alone.

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"Many of these ranges," says Don Rossi, executive director of the (US) National Golf Foundation, which has a branch office in Japan, "are enclosed so that the shots can be contained. What's amazing is that a great number of people who frequent these facilities never play on a course."

Some may not feel the urge to play a real round, since Japanese driving ranges offer the kind of extras tennis and raquetball clubs provide in the US. Many range addicts, however, just can't afford to join a golf club. Memberships are extremely expensive, with initiation fees not infrequently in the $25,000 to

Because Japan's land mass is smaller than that of Montana, course designers have literally blasted away parts of mountains to build holes.

Just getting to an outlying course can be a challenge, unless it lies near one of Japan's famous bullet train lines. To accomodate its members, one club arranged helicopter service from the top of a Tokyo department store.

Golf made its first appearance in Japan in 1901 and the first municipal course was built in 1911.

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