Tokyo 2020

1957 Canada Cup Ignites Interests in the Game across Japan

Torakichi Nakamura 1957 Canada Cup
Torakichi (Pete) Nakamura hits his tee shot on 1st hole in the 1957 Canada Cup. (Photo by Kasumigaseki Country Club)

It was a long time ago, but Gary Player doesn’t have any problem recalling fellow 1957 Canada Cup competitor Torakichi (Pete) Nakamura at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Japan.

“I remember him being short but strongly built and holing putts from everywhere,” Player said, “and bowing multiple times to the surrounding crowd every time he did.”

Player is 85 years old, a World Golf Hall of Famer, one of only five men to complete the career Grand Slam. That October week in Kawagoe City about 30 miles northwest of Tokyo, though, it was Nakamura, the son of a Yokohama farmer, who played like a superstar in the international event that would become known as the World Cup a decade later.

Nakamura, 42 at the time, partnered with countryman Koichi Ono, another experienced professional, to lead Japan to a runaway victory on Kasumigaseki Country Club’s East course while also comfortably claiming the individual title in the 30-team, 60-player international field that included many of the globe’s top golfers.

Now 60 of the world’s best players will gather again at Kasumigaseki Country Club over each of the next two weeks for another important international competition: the Olympic Games. The men’s Olympic competition will be played July 29-Aug. 1, while the women will play Aug. 4-7.

The home team’s upset at Kasumigaseki in 1957, which was televised throughout the country and drew large crowds, is credited with starting Japan’s post-war golf boom. Now Japan will watch as its first male major champion, Hideki Matsuyama, tries to defeat players from around the globe at Kasumigaseki once again. Like at the Canada Cup, another strong American contingent will assemble at Kasumigaseki. Collin Morikawa, the recent winner of The Open, will be joined by countrymen Patrick Reed, Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas.

More than six decades ago, the underdog Japanese duo defeated the United States entry of Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret—who had won a combined 10 major championships—by nine strokes, with Player and Harold Henning partnering for South Africa to finish in third place 12 shots behind. Reporting from the scene for Sports Illustrated, Herbert Warren Wind wrote that the tournament “was climaxed with the neatness of fiction, by the unexpected and totally impressive winning performance of the Japanese team.”

Nakamura finished 72 holes seven shots clear of Player, Snead and Dave Thomas of Wales in the individual competition. That meant a double triumph that thrilled the 10,000 to 12,000 spectators on hand daily and captivated many more Japanese keeping up with the tournament through media reports, including in the pages of Yomiuri Shimbun, one of the country’s large national daily newspapers and a co-sponsor of the Canada Cup. The huge upset by the home players carried echoes of the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., where local amateur Francis Ouimet defeated highly favored Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. As Ouimet’s playoff victory over Vardon and Ray had given a big boost to the popularity of golf in the United States over the next couple of decades, Japan’s triumph in the 1957 Canada Cup ignited a wave of interest in the game across the Land of the Rising Sun.

“That triumph of Pete and Koichi put golf on page one in Japan, and it has been there ever since,” Canada Cup tournament director Fred Corcoran said in 1966 when the event returned to Japan. (It would also be contested there in 2001, with Tiger Woods holing a dramatic chip for eagle on the 72nd hole to get himself and David Duval into a playoff that was eventually won by South Africa.)

British expatriates developed Japan’s first golf course in 1903. A decade later the Tokyo Golf Club became the first facility established by and for Japanese golfers. In 1924, when the Japan Golf Association was founded, there were seven courses, and the number had more than tripled, to 23, by 1941, with Kasumigaseki Country Club being founded in 1929.

American star Gene Sarazen came to Japan for a three-week exhibition tour in the late-1930s and attracted curious fans eager to understand his technique. Nearly six decades later, the Squire—who developed and popularized the heavy-flanged sand wedge in the early 1930s—had a crisp memory of exhibition spectators lining up to stand in his footprints in bunkers and make air swings, imitating the technique he’d just used to masterfully extricate himself from trouble.

After World War II, courses began to be returned to Japanese control from the control of occupying forces in 1952. By the mid-1950s, the country had about 75 courses, a number which increased to about 200 by the end of the decade and more than doubled, to 424, by 1964. In addition to the courses, driving nets appeared on top of Tokyo rooftops, golf studios took over basements and dozens of driving ranges—mostly multi-deck facilities—opened in and around the bustling capital city. It has never been easy for golfers in the densely populated area where land is at a premium to pursue the sport, but they find a way.

“I have always been astonished by the Japanese passion for the game of golf and the lengths they are prepared to go in order to play,” said Player, who with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus journeyed to Japan for exhibitions in the 1960s, sometimes for matches against Japanese pros. “Absolutely the [1957] victory was a major catalyst in growing golf in Japan—both on a professional level but more importantly among amateurs. A boom in new golf courses soon followed, and subsequently all the commercial activities around the game too.”

It shouldn’t have been surprising that the golf boom was helped along by what Nakamura and Ono accomplished in the fall of 1957. It was Japan’s biggest athletic achievement on the international stage since the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, when Japanese male swimmers took gold in four of the five individual events plus the relay. American Buster Crabbe—who went on to acting fame—thwarted a Japanese sweep by winning the 400-meter freestyle.

The Canada Cup, first held in 1953, was started by industrialist John Jay Hopkins, president and CEO of General Dynamics Corporation, who believed golf could be used to build global goodwill in the aftermath of World War II and began the International Golf Association for that purpose. “Golf is a civilized and a civilizing game,” said Hopkins. His aspiration for the international tournament he created was that it “serve through the spirit of the game to bind people together. The thousands, and hopefully, ultimately millions who watch these sportsmen must inevitably recognize the common bond that links all nations." Hopkins liked to say, “If we can play together, we can live together.”

Canadair was a subsidiary of General Dynamics, which figured into the event’s name and that it was contested in ’53 and ’54 in Montreal. The Canada Cup moved to Washington, D.C., in ’55 and gained a higher profiled in ’56 when Snead and Ben Hogan teamed for victory in front of larger galleries at Wentworth outside London. Unfortunately, Hopkins didn’t live to see the 1957 edition take place at Kasumigaseki, passing away in May of that year at age 63. 

“There won’t be too many sub-par rounds,” Demaret predicted before the first round. “This is a real heavyweight golf course.” Dai Rees of Wales said he would “take 282 [for 72 holes] right now and rest on it.” Snead noted how “the tough texture of the grass makes putting tough.”

During that era most Japanese courses had two sets of greens—rye grass in the cooler months and wiry and grainy Korai grass the rest of the year. The Korai greens, which made Bermuda surfaces in the American south and southwest seem as smooth as billiard-table felt in comparison, were utilized during the Canada Cup. “The grain of the grass grows hectically in every direction, like the extra-rough beard featured in shaving-cream commercials,” Wind wrote of the Kasumigaseki greens in Sports Illustrated

Of course, the confounding type of grass was something that Nakamura and Ono had seen. Nakamura had won the 1956 Japan Open by eight strokes over Kasumigaseki’s West course. “No question the golf-course conditions and grass favored the local players,” Player said. “You had to adopt a ‘rap’ style of striking the ball on the greens to get the ball on line and reach the hole.”

Nakamura stood 5-foot-2, a bit stocky in the manner of Sarazen, who was three inches or so taller. He was known as a putting god because of his skill on the greens and, like the American he loosely resembled, was excellent from the sand, reliably saving par and even holing several shots. Nakamura possessed what Wind called a “lurching backswing” during which he thrust “his hands into the air as if to grab the rope of a bell in a belfry.” He and Ono, thin with a wristy, flat swing, made up for a lack of power with finesse. Nakamura hit brilliant, long recovery shots from fairway bunkers. “A small player must be ingenious to win,” Nakamura once said.

Snead and Demaret got off to fast start at Kasumigaseki, shooting 67 and 69 respectively to take a five-stroke lead over the Japanese team after round one. Nakamura, scrambling effectively, and Ono, sinking three putts of more than 20 feet on the front nine, made their move on the second day when they were grouped with the favored Americans. They combined for a 138 total, seven better than the U.S. duo which struggled down the stretch, to take a two-stroke advantage at the halfway point. Nakamura (67) and Ono (68) opened a larger margin after 54 holes after Snead and Demaret each had 71 on Saturday. The pressure was immense on Sunday, but the home team began with a nine-shot cushion and maintained it through the final 18, the winning total of 274 much lower than the scoring forecast.

“They played against the best in the world and won,” said Frank Pace, president of the International Golf Association, saluting Nakamura and Ono.

“What a wonderful victory for Japan,” Player said recently. “We all were so proud to represent our countries in this event, which became the World Cup. … One can never deny the victory of Japan and the impact it had on the game in that country.”

It would be 45 years before Japan claimed another World Cup, with Toshi Izawa and Shigeki Maruyama winning in 2002 in Mexico. By that time Nakamura and Ono were part of a champion’s role full of golf royalty: Player, Nicklaus, Palmer, Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Seve Ballesteros, Fred Couples and Tiger Woods.

Golfers are competing for gold in the Olympic competition at Kasumigaseki this summer. The field will have favorites and longshots, all hoping to be the best in the world. Sixty-four years ago, Nakamura and Ono showed how to get it done.

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