Shigeki Maruyama, your smiling halfway co-leader in the Sony Open in Hawaii, has any number of forces driving him to win the tournament today.
And, then, there is one that you won’t see from Stuart Appleby, the other co-leader at 10-under 130, or the pack that is chasing the two-shot leaders around Waialae Country Club with 36 holes to play in a tournament compressed by Thursday’s rainout.
For as much as Maruyama pursues what would be his first win in 13 tries here, his first PGA Tour victory since 2003 and, of course, that $990,000 first prize and three years of picking and choosing his tournaments, you sense there is something very cultural and highly personal in play here, too.
Something quintessentially Japanese called "on" (pronounced: ohn) that basically goes to the repayment of a favor. An obligation to return a kindness to a degree not often glimpsed in our athletic culture where it sometimes seems answering bitter slights, real and perceived, takes precedence.
In Maruyama’s case, the debt involves the sponsor’s exemption that allowed an entry he otherwise would not have had under PGA Tour policy to the 144-man field here. Maruyama has played in every Sony Open, one of only four in the field to do so. And, from the first one in 1999, many, including the last five, have been based upon the sponsor’s largesse.
To be sure, the eight other recipients of sponsor’s exemptions this year, three of them from Japan, probably feel some gratitude for the opportunity. Or, at least you hope so.
But this goes beyond merely feeling fortunate or expressing perfunctory thanks. With the 41-year old Maruyama, one of only two players with exemptions to make yesterday’s cut, it seems deeper, more heartfelt.
For one thing, the exemptions have gotten Maruyama onto a course that, because it doesn’t demand a long hitter, suits his game more than most the PGA Tour visits.
For another, it is a scene that once helped drive his interest in the sport, first glimpsed on television as a youngster when countryman Isao Aoki won the then-Hawaiian Open at Waialae in 1983 with an eagle on the final hole. "I remember," Maruyama said yesterday.
Maruyama has had his own moments here with three top-10 finishes, six top-25 showings and earnings of more than $680,000 — or upwards of 55 million yen at the prevailing exchange rates.
That the opportunities flowed from an iconic Japanese company underlines the cultural tie and, you suspect, the wish to make the most of them.
"A responsibility? Kind of," Maruyama acknowledged. "Sony is one of the very top companies in Japan and they’ve been sponsoring this tournament for a long time — and I don’t think I’ve missed a Sony Open. I’m grateful not only for the sponsor’s exemption, but for them sponsoring a tournament here on the PGA Tour. So, in that sense, I guess I do feel a responsibility."
You could say he’s done his part just by playing consistently well over the years, luring some of the biggest galleries and giving Japan’s media a relevant, colorful performer to follow.
But Maruyama clearly wants more. Or so his play suggests, as he put up consecutive 65s, the latest built around eight birdies and three bogeys. That put him alone atop the leaderboard early yesterday until Appleby, the first-round leader, birdied the final three holes late in the afternoon to tie.
Maruyama has a lot to play for today, not all of which you’ll find laid out in the PGA Tour’s player handbook.
Reach Ferd Lewis at email@example.com.