Quake survivor, 61, now golf pro

Dabbler born again after Hanshin hazards spared clubs

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KOBE — The 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake took the lives of more than 6,400 people and left tens of thousands homeless, but it helped turn one middle-aged man who lost most of his worldly possessions into a professional golfer.

Tadao Furuichi, 61, who earned his professional golfer credentials in September 2000 a week shy of his 60th birthday, is now asked to give inspirational lectures across the country. A book about him was published last year and a comic strip series is currently running. Plans to make a film based on his experiences are also under way.

“I am not trying to make this all happen, but people seem to be interested in my story — probably because I am as ordinary as anyone else,” Furuichi said, after giving a lecture to university students in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

Furuichi owned a small camera shop in Nagata Ward, Kobe, one of the areas hardest hit by the quake. He had been playing golf since the age of 30, but was only one of many enthusiastic amateurs who had the time and money to play about twice a month.

But the disaster changed his life. As a member of a local volunteer fire brigade, Furuichi worked many hours without a break and saved many people. He also lost many, some of whom died before his eyes.

“It was hell,” he recalled. “I was determined to rebuild our community into one that is quake-resistant and resident-friendly, for that would be the best consolation for those who died in the quake and subsequent fires.”

Although his family was safe, his house and shop were burned to ashes. About the only item spared was a set of golf clubs in the trunk of his car parked some distance from his house.

It was a strange fortune, considering that he did not usually keep his golf bag in the car, and the vehicle was moved from a parking lot in front of his house to the new parking place just a month earlier.

“When I found the golf bag, the thought flashed into my mind that God was telling me to take this path,” Furuichi said.

But he put priority on rebuilding his community. As head of a local community organization, he worked hard to coordinate conflicting interests in the redrawing of property demarcation lines. The issue was so contentious that he received death threats.

After the reconstruction process got on track, Furuichi decided to take the examination to qualify as a professional golfer. Although many around him laughed at the idea, he wanted to take the challenge, believing “golf is a battle with one’s own mind.”

“People say that winning in a sport requires high-level technique, physical strength, talent and effort,” Furuichi said. “But not golf. It requires a strong mind.

“Golf is the only sport in which people with age differences as big as 40 years can compete with each other. That’s why it’s so interesting.”

In the four-day exam, many applicants — mostly in their 20s — faltered under the heavy pressure. Furuichi, however, said he enjoyed every shot, although he was on the pass-fail borderline.

What helped him stay calm, he said, was a mind full of gratitude — both for being able to play golf and for those who supported him.

“The earthquake taught me that what’s important is not money or material goods, but kindness, friendship, love, a positive attitude and gratitude,” Furuichi said.

“Before the quake, I thought courage meant not shirking one’s duties or hardships and keeping a positive attitude, but these only make up half of what courage really is. The other half is being grateful.”

Furuichi has become busy moving from place to place to participate in golf tournaments and give lectures, both on golf and disaster survival. Last year he earned around 4.4 million yen from the sport, coming in second place twice and third once. But he has not reduced the time he spends on community service.

He still heads the community organization and serves on the fire brigade. He also participates in a twice-a-month gathering for senior citizens who live alone in his neighborhood. He says the volunteer work gives him energy.

Completing the reconstruction of the community is one of his dreams because it is “a sign of gratitude for those who supported the quake-stricken.”

Another dream, Furuichi said, is to invite Tiger Woods to play golf with him. Part of the royalties of the book about him goes to the Tiger Woods Foundation, which promotes parental responsibility and involvement in the lives of children.

“I want Tiger Woods to give courage to the children of Kobe who lost parents in the quake,” he said. “And then I want to compete against him at my home course in Kobe.

“I think I have a chance of winning. People may laugh at that idea, but they also laughed when I took the test to become a professional golfer. You never know.”