Japan, land of rising golfers; football's free agents; NBA strategy
Until Sunday, Japanese golfer Isao Aoki was best known to Americans for his close pursuit of Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 US Open. His shot heard 'round the world should change that. For not only did he one-hop the ball into the cup from 128 yards away, he eagled the final hole of the Hawaiian Open in the process to win his first PGA tournament.
The shot, like other extraordinary strokes under pressure, will certainly etch itself in golfing memory. What may be forgotten is that Aoki scored a pair of eagles the day before.
Obviously he was playing well, but then eagles (two-under-par) are not that unusual in Hawaii. Bruce Lietzke once recorded three in a single round playing the same Waialae Country Club course. The par 5s are not especially long (about 500 yards) by pro standards, and trailing winds can make them play even shorter. For example, Jack Renner, the runner-up, almost eagled the final hole in less spectacular fashion by hitting a fairway wood to within 18 feet of the flag. But he two-putted, barely missing his first attempt, to finish a stroke behind.
The victory may be just the breakthrough Aoki has needed. A highly decorated champion back home, he has met with moderate success overseas. A semi-regular on last year's PGA circuit, he placed 122nd in earnings.
Ayako Okamoto, who also comes from the land of triple-decker driving ranges, did better on the women's tour, finishing 14th overall and winning the Arizona Copper Classic in a sudden death playoff. The only other Japanese woman to win an American LPGA event was Chako Haguchi in 1977.
Most Japanese pros limit their play in America to brief periods, but Okamoto, a former softball pitcher who once led her corporate team to a national championship, is expected to play 24 to 30 tournaments this year. Perhaps the longest driver on the tour, she averages about 250 yards off the tee. NFL and free agents
In pro football, free agents, or those players not presently under contract, have led a quiet existence. The National Football League's share-the-wealth policies have basically eliminated team incentives for pursuing them, at least with large sums of money.
That situation remains status quo, but the number of free agents doesn't. A record 252, or about a hundred more than normal, went on the market at the end of the 1982 season.
Last season's labor upheaval, which bogged down individual contract negotiations, may partially account for the free agent population. Another possibility is that players are waiting to see what the new United States Football League might offer them.
Several quarterbacks, including Dan Fouts, Doug Williams, and Gary Danielson, are currently unattached, along with such other big names as John Riggins, Kim Bokamper, and John Stallworth. The USFL probably won't engage in a bidding war for these players, but don't be surprise to see a fair number of lesser-known free agents join running back Andy Johnson and linebacker Stan White in defecting during the next month or so. NBA teams shooting less
Pro basketball's run-and-gun image isn't as valid as it once was. Today's teams average about 40 less shots per game than they did 20 years ago. What's the difference? Perhaps the influx of coaches with previous college experience.
According to Bill Bertka, an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers, coaches such as Jack Ramsay, Dick Motta, and John McLeod ''run more precise, calculated offenses,'' aimed at getting the right shot for the right player. Using five-man motion offenses, there is less reliance on the old strategy of clearing out an area to let a player go one-on-one.
It hasn't hurt, of course, that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird have come along to glamorize the pass. ''The NBA was getting an image of fire engine rushes and slam dunks,'' said former Celtics' star John Havlicek. ''Magic and Bird brought back passing and playmaking. It revived the game.''