photo courtesy of Golfweek
Masashi Ozaki, better known by his nickname Jumbo, is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame that still enjoys superstar status in his native Japan. Ask an American who the greatest Japanese golfer is and they might say Hideki Matsuyama or perhaps Isao Aoki, but in Japan there’s only Ozaki. Today, we look at a national star who was often derided outside his home country as a phony or worse. As with many things, the truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
Ozaki was born in 1947 in Tokushima in the southwest of Japan into an athletic family, with 2 of Ozaki's brothers also going on to play golf professionally. However, it wasn’t golf that first enraptured Ozaki, but baseball, where he was a star pitcher in high school, even winning a national title. In fact, Ozaki played professionally in Japan when he joined the Nishitetsu Lions in 1967. It was then that Ozaki began playing golf. After 2 years of professional baseball, Jumbo quit in order to focus on professional golf where he felt he had a better chance to succeed.
Japan Golf Tour
Jumbo stood out from the beginning, with his flashy clothes and his brash behavior the reason for his nickname rather than his average size. From the beginning he was known for his exceptionally long drives, but needed time to refine the other aspects of his game. After playing his way onto the tour, Ozaki announced himself in 1973 when he won his first Japan Golf Tour event. In fact, he won 5 events that year. That was the beginning of a career that saw Jumbo claim 114 wins to date, including 94 Japan Golf Tour wins. His perfomances in Japan are legendary, with Ozaki the all-time money leader with 43 more wins than the nearest challenger, fellow world golf hall of famer Isao Aoki.
Ozaki has said that he had no real desire to play on either the European Tour or PGA Tour, something that earned him criticism by many non-Asian golfers and fans. That criticism increased when he spent nearly 200 weeks in the top-10 of the world rankings, even reaching number 5 in 1996. Much of the criticism came from Ozaki’s performance in majors, which were the main way outsiders could see Jumbo play. Ozaki never won a major championship, but it’s unfair to say he never performed well. In fact, Ozaki has top-10 finishes at the Masters, U.S. Open, and the Open Championship. Ozaki would routinely travel with a sushi chef and rent an entire house when he played these foreign tournaments as a way to recreate a corner of Japan. It was mainly this love for home that kept Ozaki from competing on other tours, as he simply did not wish to live on the road in order to chase higher riches and prestige. Many golfers who saw him play in Japan attest to the incredible well-rounded nature of Jumbo's game. And even today, despite being in his 70s, Ozaki continues to compete on the Japan Golf Tour a few times each year.
Accusations Against Ozaki
photo: USA Today
Despite his celebrity status or perhaps because of it, Ozaki has always courted rumors of cheating, especially among American and European golfers. Notably, Greg Norman accused Ozaki of improving his lie by pressing down grass behind his ball at a Japan Golf Tour event. Other rumors claimed he used illegal clubs or a doctored ball to achieve his distances. All charges that Jumbo denies, of course. He has also been rumored to be friends with high ranking members of Japan’s organized crime organizations known as the yakuza. Ozaki denies these claims too, though to many they add an air of mystique to the otherwise charming showman. However, photographs were published in the 1980s of Ozaki at a birthday party for an alleged yakuza member and he did receive an official warning from Japanese golf officials. But that, it seems, is as far as anyone has gone to substantiate the rumors around the larger than life Jumbo Ozaki.