Maruyama feels right at home, and ready to defend title

Wednesday, July 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ Shigeki Maruyama felt right at home the first time he saw Brown Deer Park.

``The holes are narrow and the rough is very heavy,'' he said through an interpreter. ``It looks like a Japanese course, with the holes surrounded by trees. I had a very good impression of Brown Deer.''

And he made one, too.

Maruyama, a nine-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour, won the Greater Milwaukee Open last year in a playoff, shooting rounds of 68, 65, 67 and 68 for an 18-under-par 266.

He birdied the first extra hole to beat Charles Howell III and become the first Japanese player to win a PGA Tour event on the U.S. mainland.

``I don't think I'm a top player yet, but winning the Milwaukee Open gave me the confidence I needed,'' Maruyama said.

Maruyama was the first player to gain his initial PGA Tour victory at the GMO since the tournament moved to Brown Deer in 1994. He begins his title defense Thursday, trying to become the event's first repeat champion.

The winner's dlrs 558,000 share of the dlrs 3.1 million purse pushed his winnings over dlrs 1 million for the second straight year.

This season, he solidified his standing as a rising star when he won the Verizon Byron Nelson Classic over a strong field and played well at the Masters, where he closed with a 67 for 14th place.

His ever-present smile has made him one of the tour's most engaging golfers. After his dominating play against a powerful U.S. team at the 1998 Presidents Cup, an Australian sports writer nicknamed Maruyama the ``Smiling Assassin.''

``I don't speak English, so I express my emotions to be understood by everybody,'' said Maruyama, who wore a cowboy hat and acted as if he were riding a horse after winning the Byron Nelson in Texas. ``I made gestures so everybody understands me.''

Maruyama can't figure out why anyone wouldn't smile on a golf course, let alone professionals who are making a living doing what they love.

``I don't understand why they're so serious when they made good birdies,'' he said. ``Aren't they happy?''

Maruyama's father, Mamoru, told him to always smile on a golf course. His father was a scratch handicap golfer who won several club championships and taught his son the game.

Shigeki Maruyama took his first swings at age 3 and shot his first par round when he was 11. By 15, he was regularly beating his father. He quit baseball to concentrate on golf.

``In golf, all the responsibility comes back to the player,'' Maruyama said. ``If you don't practice, you don't play well. I didn't like studying, so all I did was practice golf. I asked a kid who was smart how long he studied and he said, 'Five hours a day.' So, I practiced golf five hours a day.''

After becoming a star in Japan, he moved to Los Angeles.

``I was aiming at the PGA Tour since I was young,'' Maruyama said. ``That was my dream, to win a tournament on the No. 1 tour in the world.''

He still visits Japan often. He built a golf course for his father named ''58 Golf Club'' in honor of the score Shigeki Maruyama carded at Woodmont in Maryland during a U.S. Open qualifier two years ago.

For all his smiles, however, Maruyama gets lonesome in the United States.

``He doesn't go out much in the evening,'' interpreter Taka Yamamoto said. ``He watches ESPN and the Golf Channel each night. He talks to people in Japan every night. He's got lots of big phone bills.''