Isao Aoki in 2004 became the first Japanese male golfer to be inducted to the World Golf Hall of Fame, having won 71 times around the world on six different tours.
Aoki won 56 times in his home country and is Japan’s global golf ambassador. Today, he serves as chairman of the Japan Golf Tour Organization, which in 2019 will co-sanction the first-ever PGA TOUR event to be held in Japan: the Zozo Championship.
A PGA TOUR tournament in Japan might not have been possible if not for Aoki’s pioneering spirit during his playing days. Aoki had a major influence on modern day Japanese golfers such as Hideki Matsuyama and, during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Aoki was introduced as the “Arnold Palmer of Japanese golf.”
Aoki grew up in Chiba, Japan, as the son of a farmer and was introduced to golf at the age of 15 while caddying at Abiko Golf Club. He was inspired to play himself after seeing Palmer competing in an event on television. Aoki has called Palmer his idol and challenged himself to come to the U.S. to play professionally, with a dream to experience success through the game and, thus, see the world. He would go on to become the first Japanese player to win a PGA TOUR event, holing out a pitching wedge from 128 yards out for an eagle on the final hole to win the 1983 Hawaiian Open by one stroke. Aoki might be even better known for his runner-up finish to Jack Nicklaus at the 1980 U.S. Open, where he was paired with Nicklaus all four days and shot what at the time was the second-lowest 72-hole score in the championship’s history.
Aoki’s success and charisma inspired others throughout Japan to follow in his footsteps.