The pro who made a 13 in the Masters and a 9 in the British Open
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Modern golf in America can be traced back to Arnold Palmer driving the first green at Cherry Hills and going on to win the 1960 U.S. Open. Equally important in another hemisphere was the 1957 Canada Cup, soon to be renamed the World Cup, won by a heroic Japanese player Torakichi (Pete) Nakamura and his partner, Koichi Ono, near Tokyo. Pete’s nicknames gave an indication of his stature—he was known as “Tora-san” and “the Putting God.” He was the first Japanese pro to play in the Masters and single-handedly launched golf as a big-time sport in Asia. He was to Japanese golf what Duke Kahanamoku was to the ancient art of surfing.
Decades followed while Japan waited for another international star to emerge. Isao Aoki and Jumbo Ozaki won 145 tournaments between them on the Japan Golf Tour, but victories on the world stage were rare. Even today, 60 years later, no Japanese male pro has ever won a major championship. Many Japanese women have had stellar careers on the LPGA Tour, but there has always seemed to be a jinx for their countrymen.
No. 3 on the Japan Tour for all-time victories is Tsuneyuki (Tommy) Nakajima, a popular player whose first professional title was in the 1976 Golf Digest Open in Japan and who later led the money list four out of five years from 1982-’86. His most notorious moment in golf history occurred over two majors in 1978, when he ran up scores on two iconic holes that caught every golfer’s imagination. We’d all been there. We felt his pain. We knew, in Jim McKay’s words of the time, “the agony of defeat.”
The talented writer who brought Nakajima’s calamity to life in Golf Digest’s annual issue in February 1979 was a freelancer named Brennan (Tim) Quinn. His first appearance in the magazine was a couple of years earlier with “The Fat City Five Teaches Johnny Miller a Few Tricks,” a piece about a public course of gamblers who Quinn frequented in Stockton, Calif. The 1-handicapper knew his way around golf and would later co-author with Jimmy Ballard the book How to Perfect Your Golf Swing. —Jerry Tarde
In a strange way, it seems a fluke that the game of golf wasn’t begun by the Japanese sometime around the seventh century. Historical records suggest that the philosophical and physical climate was near perfect. The era was marked by the dominant forces of the Haiku poet and the Samurai—the first distinguished for their 100-compression literary style, the second for their unparalleled mastery of the long and short irons.
Where warriors dream
Five words, written more than a thousand years ago, and who among the contemporary writers could more aptly condense the plight of the modern touring player? Haiku took the experience of life, teed it up and simply nailed it right on the screws. Undoubtedly, it is this truthful directness that has prompted a popular resurgence of the form in the Western World of today. Small stones cast into mind pools stagnated by computer printouts, homeowners policies and triple-net leases. The Samurai, too, were not averse to teeing it up and nailing it on the screws—anything or anybody they wanted, too! And with a like resurgence of the martial arts in the West, we are reminded that the Samurai initiate’s first rule of survival turned out to be the first rule of golf: “Be prepared for anything; expect nothing!”
In 1978, on two separate occasions, a rising son of Japanese golf revisited the ancestral wisdom in bizarre, nightmarish and near-ineffable fashion.
The story began on Friday, April 7, at Augusta National. It was a day of infamy in the life of Tsuneyuki Nakajima (pronounced Tsuneyuki Nakajima) who damn near committed hara-kiri in Rae’s Creek.
According to the record, Nakajima, at 23, was the youngest Japanese PGA champion … before he stepped in the water. He is now the first man, of any age, to make a 13 on a single hole at Augusta during tournament play. That eclipsed the record of Frank Walsh, who made a 12 on the par-5 eighth in 1935.
Nakajima, playing in his first Masters, opened with an 80 on Thursday. On Friday, he was even par going into No. 13, “the Azalea Hole,” a 485-yard, dogleg-left par 5. A long drive around the corner leaves an iron to the green and eagle possibilities. Nakajima didn’t need a calculator to know that he had to have an eagle for any chance of making the cut. All or nothing. And as they say in aerial warfare and boxing, “He went the kamikaze route!” Attempting to hit the longest drive possible, Nakajima duck-hooked it into the creek.
Wild goose, wild goose
At what age
Did you make your first journey
He was forced to drop the ball out. Penalty shot. The third swipe went less than 100 yards. The fourth sailed into the creek in front of the green.
On the shingle
Beaten by waves
He sleeps with his head
Amongst the rocks
Perhaps feeling his luck would change, he attempted to blast the ball from the water. Everything flew straight up, and the ball came down on top of one of his FootJoys. Penalty! Oh! Oh! Unsnap calculator case … push on button … clear! … click … click, click, click, etc. … Total! He now lay 7! Maintaining his composure, he handed his sand wedge to his caddie, for cleaning, but they muffed the exchange, and the club was accidentally dropped in the water. Ground club hazard! Penalty! Clear … click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click … Total! Nine! Finally, Nakajima wedged it out of the creek and over the green, chipped on and two-putted. Final audit. Clear! … Number of times ball struck … click, plus eight … number of penalty shots … click, plus five … push add … click. Total … 13!
When I went out
In the spring meadows
To gather flowers
I enjoyed myself
So much that I stayed all night
To his everlasting credit, Nakajima finished the back nine with 44 and managed another 80. Obviously, such misfortune prompts press interviews, and Dr. Frank Chou, a professor at Augusta College who serves as an interpreter for Asian players, made a rare press-room call. Under questioning, a Japanese golfer tried to explain his dilemma to a Chinese intellectual, who in turn attempted to pass it to an American press. Nakajima to Chou to Chance.
Two versions of the experience emerged from the dialogue. One was contemporary and rather elaborate, and one was sort of Haiku. In the longer version, Nakajima purportedly said, “I have great respect for the course. I am more than embarrassed. There have been some very good lessons for me.” In the Haiku version, he was asked, “Did you lose your concentration?” “No,” he said, “I lost count!”
The second week in July brought the British Open to St. Andrews. Parenthetically, the tournament address was KY16 9JD, Scotland, and any non-English-speaking player who could locate the premises should have been presented with a tartan blanket, an autographed glossy of Old Tom Morris and a case of Glenlivet scotch. Nakajima was there. Having brought Rae’s Creek to his knees he now would contend with the Road Hole, the famous course’s noted disaster area. The Road Hole, the 17th, is a 461-yard par 4⅞, dogleg right, with a boundary wall along much of the right side. The tee shot is blind, almost always dead into a stiff wind, and the second shot, which can vary enormously depending upon conditions, is fired at a two-level green with the pin invariably set on the upper left, behind a diabolical pit called the Road Bunker. Anything hit to the right becomes unlicensed vehicular traffic. Most of the four-day scores read like 5-6-6-5, and more than a few like KY16 9JD.
The rule was nobody could play the hole, and its victims included Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Weiskopf. The exception was Ben Crenshaw, who played it in 4-4-4-3. Crenshaw made his birdie with a chip-in.
On the first day, the 156-man field played the hole in 133 strokes over par with no birdies. If a visiting contingent of the IRA had blown the green into oblivion, only a few nonprofessional traditionalists would have failed to applaud. Actually, the field should have been only 131 strokes over par the first day. Home-grown Brian Barnes, playing with renowned Scottish conservatism, was on the lower level in two, but he putted into the bunker and made 6.
Whether Nakajima was aware of Barnes’ fate is a matter of supposition. Probably not. For the better part of the three rounds, Nakajima played extremely well. He was three under par and definitely in contention. He approached the 17th tee deciding to play the hole safely—whatever that means.
Two excellent shots put him on the lower level of the green in regulation. After careful scrutiny, he putted rather tentatively. The ball swept left, gained speed, and then disappeared into the Road Bunker. Safety now would turn into numbers. The depth of the trap and the slope of the green meant that anything other than the most delicate blast would find its way to the road and head on into town. Nakajima hit three nearly perfect explosion shots, only to have them fall short by inches, race back down the bank, and try on each trip to make contact with his shoes. His caddie covered his eyes.
No one spoke,
The host, the guest,
The white chrysanthemums.
Finally, the fourth sand shot stayed on the green and Nakajima two-putted. Nine! He had, literally and figuratively, buried himself in the British Isles. No wonder St. Andrews caddies now call the bunker “The Sands of Nakajima.”
There is an ancient axiom that states, “A man without a sense of humor is a living corpse!” Hopefully by now, Nakajima has seen his travails in this light. Only capable players make transoceanic flights to places like Augusta and St. Andrews in April and July. He is an excellent professional and, far from “losing face,” had endeared himself to millions of golfers the world over. I, for one, hope that he is blessed with many children and good fortune, and that he may return. And if, for a while, he awakens in the middle of the night, deep in imaginary sand or water, only to find that he has destroyed his pillow, may he pause on the edge of what’s left of his bed and calmly recall one final ancestral gem written nearly nine centuries ago:
I may live on until
I long for this time
In which I am so unhappy
And remember it fondly.