Hisako “Chako” Higuchi made her mark in golf with more than just her golf clubs. She was selected for the Lifetime Achievement category for championing the cause of Japanese golf, and continues to do so in unparalleled acts of dedication and service to her fellow professionals.
When Higuchi began to play golf in the early 1960s, there were few women golfers of any kind in Japan, and no professional tour for women. But by the time she retired from competitive golf in the ’90s, Higuchi had won 69 times on the LPGA of Japan tour and recorded milestone victories on three other continents. Her achievements blazed a trail for the many Asian international players who have followed.
"I became an emancipated woman through patience, with practice and by wanting everything so hard. I have done things for my own pride because others think I can't, and because I want to show people that others can follow."
Higuchi dominated Japanese golf from 1968 to 1980, winning the JLPGA championship nine times and Japanese Women's Open four times. But her most important victories were abroad. She won the Women's Australian Open in 1974, the Colgate European Women's Open in 1976 and, in her finest moment, the 1977 LPGA Championship, a victory which prompted a ticker-tape parade in Tokyo. Indeed, she remains the only Japanese player ever to win a major championship on either the PGA or LPGA Tours.
At the LPGA in Myrtle Beach, Higuchi remembers being nervous after being tied for the lead after three rounds. "I thought I would not win," she said. "But by then, I was very consistent, and I hardly ever missed a fairway. On the final day, I played my best golf." With a closing 69 built on three consecutive back-nine birdies, she won by three strokes.
"Chako was very well liked, and a wonderful player," says Judy Rankin. "She had beautiful tempo and great balance. You never thought of Chako hitting a wild shot. On the other hand, if you made a mistake, she would be there."
Higuchi was born in Tokyo in 1945, the sixth of six children. She was a school-girl champion in track and field whose best-event was the 80-yard hurdles. At 16, she began playing golf after her sister became a locker-room attendant at a local course. It led her to become the caddie for teaching professional Torakichi Nakamura, who had won the individual title at the 1957 Canada Cup. "He taught me the game physically and mentally," Higuchi told writer Liz Kahn. "He made me run every morning and hit 1,000 balls a day until I cried."
The 5-6, slightly built Higuchi developed a swing that was distinguished by a sway so pronounced she actually lost sight of the ball at the top of her backswing. She was embarrassed when she first went to America and saw that the stars had much more orthodox swings. But Hall of Fame member Henry Cotton, who saw her win the Colgate at Sunningdale in England, said it was an effective method for a small woman to use.
"To make her swing work took a great athlete, which Chako was," says Carol Mann. "Off the course she was delightful, but on it she carried herself like an elite athlete - a fierce competitor who showed no emotion."
Although playing most of her golf in Asia, Higuchi, beginning in 1969, played the LPGA Tour part time for 10 years. The most American events she ever played in a year was 15, and her finest season was 1976, when she finished 10th on the money list. By the 1970s, Higuchi was such a hero in her home country that when she was seen on the streets of Tokyo, people would stop and clap. Her pioneering efforts helped women become accepted in Japanese golf and led the way for future Japanese professional stars such as Ayako Okamoto.
When her playing days ended, Higuchi became the commissioner of the LPGA of Japan in 1994, a position she continues to hold.
"I became an emancipated woman through patience, with practice and by wanting everything so hard," she told Kahn. "I have done things for my own pride because others think I can't, and because I want to show people that others can follow."