Of all sports, perhaps golf comes closest to creating moments that genuinely push against the limits of what seems humanly possible.
What Isao Aoki did in Honolulu on Sunday, sinking a 128-yard shot with his final swing of the tournament to win by one stroke, has a dimension that goes beyond the customarily heroic and brushes shoulders with the mythic.
In a sometimes jading sports world where one "great" performance routinely supplants another with a flick of the TV dial, Aoki's wedge shot on the 72nd hole of the Hawaiian Open was exactly the blend of skill and luck, courage and circumstance, that, for an instant, fairly paralyzes us with pleasure.
Other major American sports may be more consistently exciting, but no game has greater potential than golf for producing the cosmic gasp.
Each sport, at its best moment, has a quality of transcendence that defies comparison with anything other than itself. To compare Tom Watson's wedge shot at the 1982 U.S. Open with Reggie Jackson's fifth home run of the '77 World Series is, in a sense, to do violence to them both.
However, golf does have the ability to produce a quality of disbelief that other games are hard-pressed to equal.
If a man stood behind the outfield fence of a major league stadium and--on cue--hit an object no bigger than a half-dollar directly into the throat of an ordinary water glass set in the middle of home plate, then he would duplicate the majesty and sheer improbability of Aoki's feat.
All sports have their moments when nine parts talent and one part essential dumb luck join forces to amaze us. However, it is in the nature of golf that its miracles take place over great stretches of terrain and against backdrops of natural beauty.
As Aoki stood in the rough on the final hole Sunday, trailing Jack Renner by a shot, he appeared, on our TV screens, to be a mere speck in a sea of human specks.
Even after he swung, Aoki's shot was the most diaphanous, hard-to-glimpse dot against the vast blue sky. Then, within a fraction of a second, the ball landed a yard in front of the pin--a moment worthy of a gasp all by itself--then, on the first bounce, dove into the hole.
A 500-foot homer, a diving touchdown catch, a 19-foot pole vault cannot create such a marvelous instant when our minds don't function fast enough to digest what has happened.
In several waves of wonder, the event unfolded itself after the fact. Aoki had made an eagle on a par-5 hole. Just when his chances for a playoff seemed poor, his victory was a fait accompli!
Next, a whole sequence of notions swarmed upon us. This was Aoki, the 40-year-old Japanese star who, until an instant before, had been as famous for his star-crossed luck as his golf. Though he was the Arnold Palmer of the Orient--the handsome, classy, wealthy popularizer of his sport--Aoki had never reached either of his primary golf goals: to win the Japan Open and to become the first from his land to win a PGA Tour event. Now, just as his career seemed past its peak, he has put the crown on his golf life.
That Aoki should do this in Hawaii, with thousands of Japanese tourists and Japanese-Americans in his gallery (Aoki's Army), made the whole setting absolutely appropriate. This athletic miracle was also a moment of particularly human joy. Aoki's grinning fairway dance was nearly 30 years in the making.
"My one hope was to hit the ball close to the pin, and I still can't believe it went in, although I saw it bounce in," Aoki said at his press conference afterward, adding that he'd put extra pressure on himself the last two years knowing that "the Japanese people have expected me to win in America . . . "
Perhaps the person with the most precise sense of Aoki's feat is Jack Renner, the man who sat, still adding and signing his scorecard, in stupefied disbelief after he was told, "Jack, it went in the hole."
Over the long distance telephone line yesterday, Renner's voice cracked as he talked. "It's not tears I'm sniffling back," he chuckled. "I caught a cold."
If Renner were crying, no one would blame him. Only once before in golf history has a tour tournament been won by a single stroke because the victor sank a shot from the fairway on the final hole. Golf has no shortage of shots that were more important, more historic, more difficult and even more improbable than Aoki's. However, only one other swing is in its class for spectacular, tournament-ending drama.
In 1953, Washington's Lew Worsham sank a 140-yard wedge shot for an eagle-2 on the 410-yard, par-4 18th at Tam O'Shanter in Chicago to win a then-huge $25,000 purse in a now-defunct event called the World Championship.
Radio announcer Jimmy Demaret summed up Worsham's shot nicely on the air in one live-and-thus-uncensorable word: "Goddamn."
Ironically, Renner's father then lived in Chicago and saw Worsham's shot. "I heard about it many times growing up," says Renner, who has played with his dad since he was 6.
Now, it is Renner who is in the same helpless position then held by Chandler Harper. "You can't play defense in golf. I couldn't throw my body in front of the ball," Renner said yesterday. "Having that happen to you is every golfer's nightmare. You see something like that before your eyes as you're falling asleep . . . This can't possibly happen twice to one guy, so I've got the rest of my career free and easy . . .
"The whole thing was so absurd that it struck me as comical. To think that the fates would play a trick like that on you is preposterous.
"It was a shot that's great for golf, great for everybody, really," said Renner, laughing ruefully. "Except me."