‘Mothers of golf’ tested themselves abroad

by Takeshi Ozawa

Kyodo

Hisako “Chako” Higuchi and the late Ku Ok-hee of South Korea are regarded as the “mothers of women’s golf” in their countries and followed a similar groundbreaking path to the top by challenging themselves overseas.

Higuchi said that when she turned pro in 1967, golf for women was seen as a game for “special women, such as wives of company presidents.”

Now an adviser to the Ladies Professional Golfers’ Association of Japan after serving as its president, the 67-year-old once drew the derision of a leading member of Japan’s golf establishment, who told a newspaper he could not understand why women would want to “live with a set of golf clubs.”

1967 was the year professional women’s golf was established in Japan, and the following year saw only two tournaments held for female golf pros — the Japan LPGA Championship in July and Japan Women’s Open in December, then called the TBS Women’s Open. Higuchi came first in both tournaments, winning them for four years in a row.

As the top female pro in Japan, Higuchi wanted to test herself internationally. In 1970, she and her compatriot Masako Sasaki, 69, went to the United States to become the first players from Asia to participate in tournaments there. Although shocked by the much tougher competition in the United States, they began playing in 10 U.S. tournaments from April to June each year.

In the 1977 U.S. LPGA Championship, Higuchi happened to find herself at the top of the leader board ahead of the last three holes. She had been avoiding looking at the board until that point so as not to buckle under the pressure, but now she was getting nervous.

She eventually won the tournament, becoming the first Japanese player to ever win a major championship for either men or women. Waiting to take what would be her winning putt, the anxiety she was feeling, coupled with the surge of emotion as she contemplated her achievements, made her even think of quitting golf.

The stature of women’s golf in Japan drastically improved, thanks to Higuchi’s triumph. But as Higuchi only began playing in Japan in July each year after coming back from U.S. tournaments, the Japanese LPGA asked her to play exclusively in Japan in order to win sponsors for domestic competitions.

Higuchi complied with the request, wrapping up 10 years of competing in the United States. The total prize money for women’s golf tournaments in Japan broke the ¥200 million barrier in 1978, up from ¥190 million the previous year, and eventually topped ¥1 billion in 1985.

Other Japanese players followed Higuchi, such as Ayako Okamoto, 62, who became the U.S. tour money leader in 1987, Hiromi Kobayashi, 50, and Akiko Fukushima, 40. Younger players like Ai Miyazato, 28, are now competing on the U.S. tour.

Ku was born in Seoul in 1956 and became one of the first female professional golfers in South Korea. After winning all domestic tournaments she participated in, Ku began playing in Japan in 1984, with Higuchi accepting the role as her warrantor on the Japanese tour. Ku captured her first title in Japan the following year.

“She wanted to compete in a bigger world” than South Korea, freelance golf writer Ayami Tsukihashi, 48, said of Ku’s challenging herself in Japan.

Ku won a U.S. tournament in 1988, becoming the first South Korean player to win in both Japan and the United States. That year also turned out to be when Park In-bee and Shin Ji-yai, two of the South Korean players who are among the leaders of the Japanese and U.S. tours, were born.

Ku soon returned to the tour in Japan from the United States. Tsukihashi speculates Ku was unhappy with her personal life in the United States, quoting her as saying, “I didn’t enjoy playing (in the country) very much.”

Ku told Tsukihashi that she wanted to become the first South Korean player to top the money list on the Japanese tour. Like other South Koreans of her generation, Ku “probably had a strong sense of rivalry against Japan,” Tsukihashi said.

But Ku failed to reach her goal, although she came in second on the money list twice, while winning the LPGA championship as many times.

Her dream was achieved by Ahn Sun-ju, 26, in 2010 and 2011, while Shin topped the money list in the United States in 2009.

Respected as a legend in South Korea for paving the way for South Korean golfers to play in Japan, Ku died of a heart attack at her residence in Shizuoka Prefecture in July. She was 56.

Shin was among those awaiting her body at an airport in Seoul.