All Isao Aoki ever wanted to do was to see the world through golf. He accomplished that and a whole lot more. Aoki won 71 times around the world on six different tours and in 2004 became the first Japanese male golfer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Despite his numerous victories, Aoki is perhaps best known for finishing second at the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol Golf Club. Paired with Jack Nicklaus all four days, Aoki played his best golf against Nicklaus, sharing the lead going into the final round. Aoki waited patiently for his chance at glory.
“I kept telling myself no matter how perfect he is, he will make a mistake in 72 holes in four days,” Aoki said, “But I was wrong. Jack did not make any errors until the end of the tournament.” Nicklaus carded a record-setting score of 272 (8-under-par), winning his fourth U.S. Open title while Aoki’s 274 total became the second lowest 72-hole score in Open history.
"I kept telling myself no matter how perfect he is, he will make a mistake in 72 holes in four days, but I was wrong. Jack did not make any errors until the end of the tournament."
Aoki fell short but he learned from the experience. “I realized there was a player in the world who could play far better than I ever imagined,” Aoki said. “That experience led to my first victory.” At the 1983 Hawaiian Open, he imagined a perfect result with his trusty pitching wedge. Aoki holed a pitching wedge from 128 yards for an eagle on the 72nd hole to beat a stunned Jack Renner by one shot. Aoki raised his arms in triumph in the fairway to celebrate becoming the first person from Japan to win a PGA TOUR event.
Born on August 31, 1942, Aoki grew up in Chiba, Japan the son of a farmer. He was introduced to golf as a caddie at Abiko Golf Club when he was 15 years old. It was a chance encounter – seeing Arnold Palmer playing an event on TV – that inspired him to dream big. “He was my idol,” Aoki said. “When I saw him play, I challenged myself to come to the States and then be on the TOUR.” Aoki turned pro as soon as he finished school. “My dream was to see the world,” he said.
Nicknamed “Tower” after the Toyko Tower because of his height (he’s six-feet tall), Aoki stood tallest on more than 70 occasions, including 56 times on his native tour. He led the Japanese Golf Tour in earnings five times and has won tournaments on six different tours – the PGA TOUR, Champions Tour, PGA European Tour, Australasian Tour, Japan Golf Tour, and Japan Senior Tour – including the 1978 World Match Play Championships.
Isao Aoki only plays with golf balls marked with the number 5. That number is pronounced “Go” in Japanese and it also represents the worst score he wants to make.
Aoki’s success around the world can be best attributed to his touch around the green. “I’ve never seen a putting stroke like his in my life,” said Hall of Fame member Chi Chi Rodriguez. “He’s the king of the jabbers.” “What a touch. What a putter,” added Nicklaus. Some thirty years ago Aoki developed his unorthodox toe-in-the-air style with the flat stick. “At that time they had this putter called Silent Pawn by First Flight,” he recalled. “It was 36 inches long. It was too long for me. Therefore, I tried to put it far away from my body.” He changed putters through the years, but his idiosyncratic technique became his trademark as did the number of putts that fell in the hole.
As a member of the Champions Tour, Aoki has won nine times and shot a record 60 10-under-par on his way to winning the 1997 Emerald Coast Classic.
Aoki is proud of his Japanese heritage, maintaining his residency in Tokyo, flying the Japanese flag wherever he went, and packing and re-packing his bags as Japan’s global golf ambassador. “He’s the Arnold Palmer of Japanese golf,” said Greg Norman, who introduced him at the 2004 Induction Ceremony. “To travel from your home shores – where the culture is different, the language is different – is not an easy task.”
His success inspired others to follow in his footsteps. “He’s influenced all the modern day Japanese players,” said three-time major winner, Larry Nelson. “They’ve gotten better and better since he started playing and winning outside his country.”
Indeed, golf has taken Aoki around the world and back again. “I have been doing what I love since I started,” he said.