The man behind Matsuyama: American helps Japanese players succeed on TOUR
November 04, 2014
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Bob Turner (right) has been instrumental in bridging Hideki Matsuyama's language barrier. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS -- Standard bearers – the volunteers who carry signs showing players’ scores – are a common sight at professional golf tournaments. Bob Turner stood out from the crowd, though, when he served at the Dunlop International in the late 1970s, and his volunteer post turned into a career that has taken him around the globe, helping professional golfers bridge language barriers.
Turner was working alongside his college golf team at the Dunlop. The event was in Japan; Turner is American. His team was from Tokyo’s Waseda University. When he represented the Bears in tournaments, he was the lone American in the field.
Turner now lives in his native United States, helping Japan’s young star, Hideki Matsuyama, navigate life on the PGA TOUR. Turner is Matsuyama’s English-speaking shadow, always nearby in case Matsuyama, who speaks a limited, but growing, amount of English, needs assistance.
Matsuyama was practicing in near-darkness after the second round of the recent Shriners for Children Hospitals Open; the light from the nearby electronic scoreboard was casting a glow on the putting green, which was occupied by just one other player. Turner waited quietly nearby, behind a waist-high white picket fence.
He saw all of Matsuyama’s shots on the PGA TOUR last year, including the 10-foot par putt he holed to win a playoff at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide Insurance.
Matsuyama is No. 9 in the FedExCup after finishing in the top 10 in two of his first three starts of 2014-15 (T3, Frys.com Open; T10, Shriners Hospitals for Children Open). He’s in the field at this week’s World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions. Turner will be by side, accompanying Matsuyama any time he competes outside Japan, where he’s won five times and led last year’s Order of Merit. Matsuyama is the world's highest-ranked Asian player at No. 23 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Turner, who was born in Washington and went to high school in Northern California, has translated for some of the game’s biggest names. It was an unexpected career path, one that started when he served a two-year mission in Japan for the Mormon church. He worked for Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods when they played in Japan, and most recently has helped Japan’s best players when they’ve come to the PGA TOUR.
“The most rewarding thing has been to see the pioneers – Isao Aoki, Joe Ozaki and Shigeki Maruyama – persevere and keep their cards on the PGA TOUR for so long, when people didn’t really know how difficult it was, and now to see Hideki follow that tradition and win at Memorial,” Turner, 61, said.
Matsuyama, who finished 28th in the FedExCup race last season, lives out of a suitcase when playing away from Japan, though he’s looking for a home in the U.S. Turner is part of a four-man entourage that travels with the 22-year-old.
Turner arrived in Sapporo, Japan, in 1972 to commence a two-year Mormon mission after his first year at BYU. He joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when he was 17 and living in the Northern California town of Arcata.
Turner planned to become an assistant professional after his mission, but the job fell through.
“I had no choice but to go back to school,” Turner said. “It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Turner returned to Northern California after his mission. He met his wife, Hiroko, while he was in Japan and they married shortly after he came back to the States. He resumed his studies at Humboldt State University, but the couple moved back to Japan after Hiroko got homesick, and Turner finished his studies at Waseda.
A member of the tournament staff for the Dunlop International noticed Turner and asked him a common question. “What’s your story?” People wanted to know how the American found his way to Japan. After graduating from Waseda, Turner took a job recruiting international athletes to compete in golf and tennis tournaments, and marathons, in Japan, and shepherding them when they arrived.
Ballesteros was beloved in Japan, where he twice won the Japan Open. Turner sees similarities between the late Spaniard and Matsuyama. “He doesn’t just love to play golf. He has a passion for golf,” Turner said of Matsuyama, putting a strong emphasis on “passion.” “He can’t wait to get to the next tournament.”
Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw, Billy Casper and Roberto De Vicenzo were among some of the other players he worked with in Japan.
Turner and his family returned to the United States in 1987, after a decade in Japan. That’s when he formed Turner Communications International. Turner’s son, Allen, also works for TCI. He’s worked for former Seattle Mariners reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki and Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Allen Turner, who played high school baseball, also pitches in occasionally as a bullpen catcher.
Ozaki and Maruyama, who both played the PGA TOUR full-time, were among his clients. Turner served as Suzuki’s manager when he first arrived in Seattle. Turner served a variety of roles to help make their American sojourns smoother.
There are three things Japanese players in the U.S. have to overcome: the variety of grasses, travel and the language, Turner said.
“There’s only so much ESPN and Golf Channel you can watch,” he added.
Matsuyama, with Turner’s assistance, has made a smooth transition to life on the PGA TOUR. He qualified for the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola in his first year as a PGA TOUR member.
“This past year, if there has been one thing that has been a struggle, it’s been the food,” Matsuyama, who has a fondness for Panera, said through Turner. “However, in the same light, it’s been maybe the most fun thing, trying new things and trying to find good Japanese restaurants.
“The journey has been enjoyable.”
With a little help from his friend.
Hideki Matsuyama news conference after winning the Memorial Tournament