Ayako Okamoto, LPGA's First Asian Star

Golfer Ayako Okamoto DVD cover
Ayako Okamoto didn't even start playing golf until she was 22 years old. Despite that late start, she became one of the most successful Japanese golfers ever, both in her home country and on the LPGA Tour. Well-liked and well-respected by her LPGA peers, Okamoto, despite never winning an LPGA major, was one of the tour's best players in the 1980s.

Date of birth: April 2, 1951

Place of birth: Akitsu, Hiroshima, Japan

In the Majors

As already pointed out, Ayako Okamoto never won an LPGA major. Despite that, she was fantastic in majors. Twice she ended 72 holes tied for the lead, only to lose in the playoff. At the 1986 du Maurier Classic, Pat Bradley beat her in the playoff with a birdie on the first extra hole.

And in the 1987 U.S. Women's Open, Okamoto faced Laura Davies and JoAnne Carner in an 18-hole playoff. Okamoto beat Carner, 73 to 74, but Davies won it with a 71.

Okamoto was runner-up in six majors. Aside from the two in which she lost playoffs, those were the 1984 du Maurier, 1987 du Maurier, 1989 LPGA Championship and 1991 LPGA Championship. She also finished third four other times, had 12 Top 5 finishes and 21 Top 10 finishes.

In 1987 she finished in the Top 5 at all four majors, including one third and two seconds; she was in the Top 3 at three of the majors in 1986, and in the Top 8 in three majors in 1984.

From 1983-87, she was in the Top 10 in 14 of the 20 majors played. Okamoto was in the Top 8 of the U.S. Women's Open from 1983-87, and in the Top 9 of the LPGA Championship from 1984-91.

Okamoto did actually win a tournament that today is a major, the Women's British Open. But when she won it in 1984, it was not yet counted as an LPGA major championship.

Okamoto's LPGA Wins

Okamoto won 17 times on the LPGA Tour. In chronological orders, those wins are:

More About Ayako Okamoto

"Ayako was truly a great player ... a great asset to our Tour," Kathy Whitworth once said.

Juli Inkster considered Okamoto one of the best "hands players" in golf, and said of her, "From 100 yards in, I would pick her over anybody, and she was one of the best putters out here."

And on its page about Okamoto, the World Golf Hall of Fame wrote that "Okamoto was blessed with a natural, fluid swing and a tempo that was the envy of her peers. She had wonderful hand-eye coordination and an imaginative short game."

High praise for someone who didn't start golfing until age 22. In her youth and early 20s, Okamoto's game was softball. She was the star pitcher on the Japanese national champion in 1971. Her club team was owned by the textile company Daiwabo, where Okamoto worked. The company owned a golf facility next door, and when she was 22, Okamoto finally took up golf.

Although a left-handed pitcher in softball, Okamoto learned golf right-handed. Just three years later, at age 25, she won the Mizuno Corporation Tournament on the LPGA of Japan (JLPGA) Tour. In 1978, at age 28, Okamoto won the Japan LPGA Championship, and in 1981 she won eight times in Japan and topped the JLPGA money list.

Okamoto was a superstar in Japan, but she decided to branch out and give the American LPGA a try. It was a good move. From 1982 through 1992, Okamoto won 17 times, her first win coming at the 1982 Arizona Copper Classic.

Okamoto was a consistent winner on the LPGA Tour, claiming three wins in 1984 and 1988, four wins in 1987 (plus four runners-up and 17 Top 10s that year). In 1987, she led the tour in winnings (the first non-American golfer to do so) and earned the Player of the Year award.

The only thing Okamoto didn't do in America was win a major. But as we saw above, she always seemed to be in the hunt.

And while she didn't win any LPGA majors, Okamoto did win five of the JLPGA's majors: three Japan LPGA Championships (1979, 1982, 1990) and two Japan Women's Open Golf Championships (1993, 1997). She won a total of 44 times on the JLPGA, which, at the time of her retirement, ranked No. 2 in that tour's history. She is still today one of only six golfers with more than 40 JLPGA wins.

And she compiled that record while playing much of the year, at least from the early 1980s, in America. Okamoto's last LPGA victory was in 1992, and 1993 was her last year to play a full or half schedule in the U.S. After 1993, Okamoto returned to Japan, where she continued playing. Her final win on the JLPGA was in 1999.

She was voted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on the International ballot and entered in 2005.

A few more tidbits: According to Judith Levin's biography of baseball star Ichiro Suzuki, when Ichiro was a boy his father modeled Ichiro's baseball swing after Okamoto's golf swing. ... She was painted by the famous sports artist LeRoy Neiman. ... Okamoto wrote an instructional book, made an instructional DVD, and also was the subject of an early golf video game, but all only for the Japanese market.

Okamoto's Wins On Other Tours

In addition to the 17 LPGA titles listed above, Okamoto won 44 times on the LPGA of Japan Tour, plus twice on the Ladies European Tour.

Her LPGA of Japan wins:

1975 Mizuno Golf
1976 All-Star
1977 World Ladies
1977 Tohoku Queens
1977 Asahi Toys
1977 Japan Ladies Professional East vs. West
1978 KTV Ladies Classic
1979 Japan LPGA Championship
1979 Tokai Classic
1980 Kumamoto Chuo Ladies
1980 Hokuriku Queens
1980 Saikai National Park Ladies Open
1981 Sanin Ladies Golf
1981 KBS Ladies
1981 Fuji Ladies Classic
1981 Hokuriku Queens
1981 Stanley Ladies
1981 Japan Ladies Professional East vs. West
1981 Miyagi TV Women's Open
1981 Sanyo Queens
1982 Tohato Ladies
1982 Dunlop Ladies
1982 Japan LPGA Championship
1982 Tokai Classic
1983 Sanyo Queens
1984 Tsumura Itsuki Classic
1986 Nichirei Ladies Cup
1987 Konica Cup
1989 Tokai Classic
1989 Itoki Classic
1990 Japan LPGA Championship
1991 Yamaha Cup Ladies
1991 Karuizawa 72 Tokyu Ladies Open
1991 Kosaido Asahi Cup
1992 Tohato Ladies
1992 Fujisankei Ladies Classic
1993 Japan Women's Open Golf Championship
1992 Itoen Ladies
1994 Tohato Ladies
1994 Itoki Classic
1994 Kosaido Asahi Cup
1996 Fujisankei Ladies Classic
1997 Japan Women's Open Golf Championship
1999 Katokichi Queens

Her Ladies European Tour wins:

1984 Hitachi Ladies British Open
1990 Lufthansa Ladies' German Open

More LPGA Biographies:

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