World Golf Hall of Fame Profile: Ayako Okamoto
Japan's Ayako Okamoto was 20 years old and playing a softball tournament in Hawaii when she had her first experience with golf. When she looked out the window of the hotel, there was a green below. She and her teammates decided to go play on it. They got in a lot of trouble. It was an inauspicious introduction for Okamoto, a player who would carry the hopes and dreams of a nation obsessed with golf and hungry for recognition in America.
Okamoto's team won the national championship in 1971. She was Japan's star pitcher. "The upshoot was my best pitch," she says. At 23, Okamoto grew tired of pitching softballs and decided to go play on the green permanently. A left-handed pitcher for Daiwabo textile's softball team, Okamoto learned golf with right-handed clubs and never gave them up. Her company owned a golf course and practice range adjacent to her work location, where she made a seemingly effortless transition to golf.
Born April 2, 1951, Okamoto grew up in Hiroshima the daughter of an orange farmer. "At first my parents didn't like golf," Okamoto says. "I asked them to give me until I was 25. If I wasn't a success in golf, then I'd come back home and do whatever they asked me to do."
That never happened. Okamoto was winning in Japan by 25, recording her first victory at the 1975 Mizuno Corporation Tournament. In 1979, at age 28, she won the JLPGA Championship and in 1981, she won eight tournaments and topped the money list.
Having dominated in her homeland, Okamoto wanted to test her game against the very best. She followed in the footsteps of Chako Higuchi, and was the first Japanese player to embrace the American lifestyle. Okamoto won her first LPGA Tour title at the Arizona Copper Classic in 1982. She won 62 worldwide titles: 44 on the LPGA of Japan, 17 on the LPGA Tour and one on the Ladies European Tour.
Okamoto was blessed with a natural, fluid swing and a tempo that was the envy of her peers. She had wonderful hand-eye coordination and an imaginative short game. "From 100 yards in, I would pick her over anybody," said Juli Inkster, "and she was one of the best putters out here."
With the weight of her country on her shoulders, Okamoto single-handedly sated the Japanese appetite for a real golf hero. "She was a rock star," Beth Daniel said. "She was larger than life. She was like Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan in their prime. The cameramen would camp out on her lawn and wait to take her picture." With the same smoothness as her golf swing, she handled all the adulation and attention. She hosted a weekly half-hour television show in Japan, called "Super Golf." It was the highest-rated golf show in Japan.
Okamoto's best season was 1987 when she won four times, topped the money list, and became the first non-American to win the LPGA Player of the Year award. "When I became the leading money winner in 1987, the U.S. LPGA players carried me off the 18th green on their shoulders," she remembers fondly.
Weary from traveling to and from Japan, besieged by the suffocating attention of her national press and worn down by a series of nagging injuries, Okamoto left the LPGA Tour after 1993 to wind down her career on the Japan LPGA Tour. She was the pulse of her country's golf tour. It was simply a matter of obligation. "There are people who play golf and then there are people who pave the way for others," said Daniel. "I think Ayako knew all along that she was doing this for the younger generations and she took that responsibility very seriously."
All these years later, she's still getting into trouble on the greens. "Until the young players really tire of me and ask me to leave," she says, "I hope to be able to play within the ropes for many years to come."