2002: PGA Tour - Smiling Shigeki brings life to PGA Tour party
Just as at Putt-Putt emporiums, the smiling clown’s face was predominant at the Verizon Byron Nelson Classic. It was the week the grim game face took on a subordinate role, supplanted by the ever- present smiles of animated winner Shigeki Maruyama and the wide-eyed runner-up, rookie Ben Crane.
The first Asian-born multiple winner in PGA Tour history and the unprecedented second Asian winner in as many weeks, Japan’s Maruyama is a refreshing face for professional golf. He is the picture of joy at work, the anti-Hogan, a boy at play. Glee extended, too, to the long-hitting Crane, the Q-School graduate, who, when told of his $518,400 payday a week before his wedding, said simply, “Wow!”
Maruyama broke through at last summer’s Greater Milwaukee Open and left no doubt of his talent in besting a strong Nelson field featuring eight of the world’s nine top-ranked players. He built a two-stroke edge on a second-round 63, led by three after 54 holes and, at 14 under par, finished two ahead of Crane and four up on another late-charging 65 shooter, Tiger Woods.
A week after Korean K.J. Choi dusted the field in New Orleans, Maruyama made as much of an impression with his expressions and happy reactions as with his 14 clubs. The energetic one left a trail of feel-good memories, flashing teeth and laughter over 72 holes, a new-millennium version of whistling while you work. Surely he leads professional sports in most hours of pearly-white display.
“He smiles more than anyone who has ever played golf,” the tournament’s 90-year-old namesake, Byron Nelson, said at the victory ceremony.
Maruyama talks staccato fast, using his hands, accompanying his brightness with gestures. He fist-pumps, bows and moves his noggin like a bobblehead doll. He’s in the “Say cheese” position so much his cheeks must hurt. He speaks little of the Queen’s language, relying on interpreters, but after the third round, he sang Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” in perfect English to demonstrate his karaoke prowess.
“Just smiling is natural all the time,” he said through a translator. “I cannot keep a serious face, not even for a minute.”
He has tried looking serious while walking up to the green after hitting a shot close, but has failed miserably.
“I want to do it like Tiger, have a serious face, but I can’t do it,” he said.
Then he drew laughter with a Woods impersonation, tipping his cap and tightening his lips and piercing his eyes.
On the course, he entertains galleries by making noises (“Aaaahhh!”) and mumbling. He translates to visual and audio mediums much more than to print. He admits that he “might look like a smiling idiot.” After winning, he put on a cowboy hat in the interview room and acted like he was riding a horse, rocking back and forth. He cracked that he’d go “shopping like crazy” with the $864,000 haul. Long a ham, the 32-year-old made regular appearances on the Japanese TV variety show “Yume-ga-MoriMori” (“Lots of Dreams”) early in his career.
“I wish I could speak English,” he said through an interpreter, “because I could make you laugh more. I’m a pretty comical person.”
But beneath the jester’s countenance lies ambition.
“Smiling hides the goal in my heart,” the two-time Presidents and World Cup member said. “I want to achieve higher than this.”
A nine-time winner in Japan, Maruyama says he’s still not that confident, but he was when putting in the final round. He took only 25 putts, one more than the scrambling Crane took. Maruyama saved bogey from 4 feet at the 11th for a 2-stroke edge on Crane, saved par from 18 feet at the 12th and salvaged par from 9 feet at 14. He iced the victory by making 4-footers at 16 and 17.
Crane, meanwhile, felt like a champ himself after missing five consecutive cuts.
“What an amazing week,” said the innocent one from Oregon, who didn’t inspect the leaderboard so as not to add stress. “To be in the hunt, playing with Ernie Els, was awesome.”
Following suit, he grinned widely as he talked.