|Ozaki's long, lonely road - 10/27/07|
Japanese golfer making run at first-ever win since joining PGA Tour in 1990
By BOB PADECKY
SONOMA -- So Joe Ozaki had this bunker shot on 18 Friday, about 30 feet to the pin, the ball had to clear a pronounced lip just to get close enough to save par and, wow, the thought was, this has to be a toughie. Ozaki is close to leading the Schwab. He could blow up, just on this shot.
Toughie? says Ozaki. TOUGHIE? Try living 8,000 miles away from your family. For 10 months a year. Living out of a suitcase, not having a fixed address in the United States. Missing your family so badly you fly nine times, yes, NINE times back to Tokyo during the season just to see your wife and two boys. Try being 51 years old and, after being in America 14 of the last 17 years, you still have trouble with English. Try being a guy here no one knows.
Oh, and one other thing. When he was 45 and his PGA Tour career was fizzling to nothingness, Ozaki came to a hard decision.
"It got to the point," Ozaki said through a translator, "I told myself, 'I'm never coming back here (U.S.) again.' "
So that bunker shot? After all that? No problem. Ozaki dropped the ball to within 18 inches of the pin, made par, shot a 7-under 65 and now sits this morning just three shots off the lead, tied for fourth after the second round of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship at the Sonoma Golf Club. Eduardo Romero, tied with Jim Thorpe after the first round, shot a 68 to go 12 under and occupy first place by himself.
Thorpe and Denis Watson are one stroke behind Romero. Ozaki, Tom Purtzer and Brad Bryant are bunched at three back. Jay Haas, who is chasing points leader Loren Roberts for the points championship, has a three-stroke lead on Roberts, who is 3 under for the tournament.
Of all the names so far in this story, Ozaki is the least recognizable. His brothers, Jumbo and Jet, are better known. Ozaki was on the PGA Tour for 11 years and never won, once finishing second in 1997 at the Buick Open. This is his second year on the Champions Tour and his 35th tournament. He is winless on the Champions Tour.
All this may sound a tad discouraging. Then again, consider where Ozaki was as recently as two years ago.
"I was at Q-school (qualifying school for the Champions)," Ozaki said, "and I didn't know why I was there."
Ozaki had been out of the United States for three years, playing on the Japanese Tour, but felt unsatisfied. The PGA Tour hadn't worked out. He was a stranger living in a foreign land, and he never was completely comfortable with the surroundings.
"I was homesick," he remembered of that time.
But in 2005, after three years on the Japanese Tour, Ozaki was homesick for American golf. Although he didn't know it at the time. He just saw the names on the Champions leader board and he knew them. He played with them.
"That's why I think I came back again," Ozaki said.
When he returned to America and played the Champions for the first in 2006, Ozaki was a different player. Three years away from the American game allowed Ozaki to study what went right and what went wrong in America. That knowledge, he said, has made all the difference.
"I went through a lot of tough times," Ozaki said. "I grew as a golfer. I got a lot better. That experience has gotten me to where I am today, and I am able to of the things I do today because of what I had to go through on the regular Tour. I am in a new chapter of my life now where I can enjoy golf again."
That's a common song sung on the Champions Tour, good players who were never quite good enough to make a big splash on the regular Tour find themselves rejuvenated. Older, wiser, less prone to caving into pressure, they play the game with an evenness they didn't before. And then they suddenly find themselves in positions they never thought possible.
"To be honest, I think I'm surprised to be where I am today," Ozaki said.
Ozaki is playing relaxed. Maybe he plugged into the mentality that made him a 35-time champion on the Japanese Tour. Maybe he quit fighting the things that got in the way of his golf when he first joined the PGA Tour in 1990.
"You know, I think it's tough even today trying to adjust to America," Ozaki said. "I was homesick a lot back then. I'm still feeling that way right now."