I hate Isao Aoki. It's nothing personal. The Japanese hero -- "a king, an emperor," his country's ambassador calls him -- finished second in last summer's U.S. Open golf tournament. Wonderful. He finished third at Hawaii this season and 18th last week at Muirfield, with earnings of $31,196 in five starts. Great. I still hate him. He makes golf look easy.
All us hackers know golf is God's punishment for our sins. So give me Miller Barber. I love Miller Barber. Now there is a swing that makes golf look like the forced labor it is.
To do a story about the cursed Aoki, who will play today in the first round of the Kemper Open at Congressional, the natural thing is to look up Miller Barber to see what he thinks of Isao Aoki.
What's that? You've never seen Miller Barber swing? His swing is a symphony of clanking parts. The famous Mr. X is the patron saint of hackers, for we look at his swing and see he shares our pain. At the top of the swing, Miller looks like a man using both hands to change a light bulb in the ceiling behind him without looking.
(We will pause here . . . hmmmmmmm . . . while you try to get into that famous Miller Barber position, just so you'll know our hero plays golf the hard way. He also plays it beautifully. With 11 tour victories, he has career earnings of $1,560,958. This year, at age 51, he has two top-five finishes.)
"How can Aoki make it look so easy?" I asked Barber.
"He has great hands," Barber said. "He has a compact swing, and he does what all good players do: he repeats himself every time he swings. It's the hands. He's more of a hands player than most."
At the top of his swing, Isao Aoki looks like a man lifting a lace curtain. He takes the club back so slowly, so gently, not once ruffling the lace, you'd swear he never intended to bring the club back down.
That's the maddening part. He comes back to the ball so smoothly it seems he has done nothing at all. It is as if he simply allowed the club to fall to earth, and in that act of gravity the club somehow caused a golf ball to fly 260 yards down the middle.
Now, when Tom Watson hits it 260 yards, we know he worked for it. Watson is one of God's suffering sinners. Tote that wedge, heave that driver. At the top of his swing, Watson is such a piece of coiled and tightened muscle he seems capable of sending a golf ball to Jupiter's outer moons.
Aoki won't hit it out of his shadow. Any hacker knows God will not allow anyone to hit a ball 260 yards without first extracting a promise of a woeful countenance, an audible grunt and the expenditure of enough energy to carry Montana to Ohio.
Aoki, for crying out loud, doesn't even frown.
He also doesn't speak enough English to explain how it is possible to hit a golf ball 260 yards without frowning. So I asked Chi Chi Rodriguez to explain the inexplicable. With eight tour victories and $886,815 in winnings, Rodriguez, 45, is another of golf's chain-gang choppers who have shown us hackers that only sweat pays. Chi Chi lashes at the dreaded white pellet as if it were about to carry away his first-born.
"Isao has a fantastic pair of hands," Rodriguez said. "He has good tempo, and he has a terrific attitude."
"But, Chi Chi, how can he make it look so easy?"
"It doesn't mean anything," Rodriguez said, "that he looks slow coming back to the ball. He is strictly a hands player, and his hands are going like hell when he gets to the ball. That's all that counts."
Aoki is 37. He is maybe 5 feet 9, 145 pounds. His face has the soft and rounded features of a man quick to smile. He is best identified with a putter in hand. His putting stroke is unmistakable. He holds his hands very low, causing the toe of the putter to sit up off the gound. Then he strikes the ball with the putter's heel.
They all go in.
Almost all, anyway. He is magic on the greens. Japanese courses are short and tight because the island is tiny. Japanese players consequently think more of accuracy and finesse than strength.
"Otherwise," said Yoshio Okawara, Japan's ambassador to the U.S., "we can not compete with the giant and powerful international players."
Okawara, who says he carries a 10 handicap, played with Aoki in yesterday's pro-am at Congressional Country Club."Aoki is the hero of the golfing people of Japan," the ambassador said. "He is regarded as a king, an emperor."
Aoki ascended to his golfing throne by making putts from here to Tokyo. Jack Nicklaus, playing with Aoki in last year's Open, said he had never seen a better putter. Nicklaus used the word "unbelievable."
On the first tee yesterday, former PGA champion Dave Stockton called to Aoki, using the American pros' nickname for the Oriental potentate.
"One Putt, One Putt," Stockton said with a smile. "Putts always going in." And Stockton, with his hand, did a mime showing a ball diving into a hold.
Aoki bowed his head in recognition.
One thing more. Rodriguez said, "Aoki may not speak English, but he sure understands the dollar sign." And so it was, after telling a newspaperman he didn't speak enough English to be interviewed, Aoki saw a man form Golf magazine, the outfit that last year paid him $50,000 for breaking the U.S. Open scoring record.
"Fifty thousand again?" Aoki said to the magazine man.
The man said yes, it would take a 271 to do it this time.
"Of $50,000, your government take $15,000," Aoki said.