Reborn in the USA

Asian women like Japan's Chie Arimura are blazing a trail for their compatriots on the LPGA Tour, but the journey is often a lonely one

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 4:14am


Chie Arimura, a 25-year-old professional golfer from Japan, sat alone at a table for six in her rented home, her back so straight that her shoulders jutted out. Her fingernails, painted dark pink with sparkly gold on the ring fingers, clicked against the ceramic dishes as she set out a bowl of romaine and ham and a plate of fried salmon.

Arimura's 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom condominium in Davenport, Florida, her base between stops on the LPGA Tour, is in a gated golfing community with street names like Legends and Masters. More than once, she has reminded her coach that the other two bedrooms are open to any students who need them.

"I'm very lonely in here," she said. "If I hear a sound," she added, looking towards the garage, "it's very scary."

Like many Asian golfers on the LPGA Tour, Arimura came to the United States with little grasp of English and few friends. Many players, especially those from South Korea, come with relatives who have invested their lives in the players' success. Arimura came alone.

But Arimura is hardly alone in the challenges she is facing in the United States. A surge of Asian golfers to the US tour in the past 15 years has transformed the sport, causing athletes and officials to grapple with questions about immigration and race as much as competition.

Arimura was not half finished with her food when she cleared the dishes and headed to her bedroom to change. Her English class was in half an hour, and she was probably going to be late.

"I just want to make a friend more," she said. Seeming nervous, she laughed. She is self-conscious about her English grammar. "It's really difficult for us, because we don't get out often."

Golfers from Asia have found profound success on the LPGA Tour. Park In-bee of South Korea is ranked No 1 after winning six tournaments this year, including three majors. She is merely the latest player from Asia to dominate a season. Of the 10 top-ranked players on the LPGA Tour, six are from Asia.

The sport's evolution has led to some controversy. In 2008, the LPGA commissioner at the time, Carolyn Bivens, proposed that foreign-born players who had been on the tour at least two years face suspension if they could not speak fluent English. Weeks later, under intense criticism, she retracted the proposal.

"I don't think you ask a bunch of overachievers to do something that way," Michael Whan, the current commissioner, said recently. "Just give them the freedom to do it."

The tour offers classes and tutors, conveying to players that learning English is a priority for the sport's officials.

Asked about her English ability, Arimura said, "It's not scary, but it makes me nervous and uncomfortable." She does not face suspension, but she does face fans, reporters and sponsors who cannot always understand her.

Offering English lessons, Whan said, was similar to offering a shuttle or recommending a hotel: just another optional service the LPGA provides to make its players more comfortable.

The golfers pay for the language courses, but the LPGA pays to ensure that the Indianapolis-based Language Training Centre follows the tour. Players study greetings in languages other than English, too, to prepare them for tournaments abroad. "The media tent afterward is sometimes more scary for these women than a 20-foot putt for birdie," Whan added.

When asked about Arimura, he smiled and said: "Oh, Archie."

Archie became her nickname a few months ago, when her Twitter handle was written on the back of her caddie's bib. The handle, arimurachie, was misspelled "arichie", and people read it as "Archie". But Arimura said having a nickname made her feel included.

When Arimura arrived in Waterloo, Ontario, on July 8 for the Manulife Financial Classic, her fingernails were pink. She repainted them that night, bright red for the tournament, although her ring fingernails were left gold.

It was early evening when she finished the first round three days later, and it did not go well. At one under par, Arimura was tied for 62nd. The two women in the lead, Angela Stanford of Texas and Catriona Matthew of Scotland, were at eight under. US players were tough, Arimura said, adding: "They hit far, hit high, hit strong."

Asian players have a reputation for rigid discipline. They seem fierce on the course, Arimura says, because they are continually cutting through a tangle of language barriers, cultural questions and expectations of success.

Americans might not be reaching their full potential, Arimura said, because they are so busy. The lives of US players, like her life in Japan, are packed with parties, pro-ams and interviews. Here, Arimura is not in demand.

Hopping out of a golf cart after her difficult round in Ontario, she did not even glance at the clubhouse. She made her way to the putting green, her caddie behind her toting a red TourStage bag.

Arimura was not in a good mood. Her manager, Shu Ogata, and her trainer, Koji Tanaka, could tell by her stride and the look on her face. They kept their distance and watched. Although they travel with her and help her organise her day, she is the star, and she is their boss.

"Ninety-five per cent of what we do is watching," Tanaka said with a laugh.

Putting sank her that day, Mark Maundrell, her caddie, said after the round.

So despite three hours of practice followed by five hours of play, Arimura would practise again.

That is fairly standard for Arimura, said Kevin Smeltz, her coach in Central Florida.

"Most Asian girls are pretty disciplined, but she was even different," Smeltz said, recalling the first time he met her, three years ago. "She wasn't worried about what anyone else was doing. She didn't come off as cocky."

When Arimura is on the driving range, she sticks her tees into her ponytail, which is sloppily half-tucked into a bun. She balances, shifting her weight from foot to foot, and cracks the club against the ball. She almost never goes for distance, and she does not ask for help.

Ogata and Tanaka watch Arimura, and they are clearly bored. Ogata plays golf only when he has to, for networking, and Tanaka does not play. Ogata does not speak English. Tanaka is hired to be her physical therapist and trainer, but he is also an interpreter for her and Ogata.

They are sensitive to her moods and can read them from the subtlest clues. They can tell when she has a headache, as she usually does the day after a competition. They joke with each other while they tail her across a golf course, sometimes about how boring it is, but when they talk to her, their tones are almost reverent.

Tanaka cannot predict their schedule from day to day. He jerked his body left, then right, as he said: "Sometimes she goes this way, and then she goes this way." But the men do whatever she says, even when they are confused.

Tanaka, Ogata and Arimura are almost always together, but they rarely talk about anything personal. For that, she is on her phone, tapping out messages to her friends and family in Japan, especially her older sister and her best friend from high school. They talk about everything but golf. Her best friend is a golfer, too, so they are technically rivals.

She told an English tutor that she spent about five hours a day on her phone.

After her post-round putting practice, the men carried her bags to their rental car. She did not tell them whether she wanted to eat dinner or have a massage for her tired muscles. She stared out the window while Tanaka handed her two ice packs to rest on her wrists.

No one talked during the car ride. The radio played American pop music.

When they reached their hotel, Arimura was out of the car and inside before anyone could say anything. The men, left with the bags and no instructions, were free to do as they wished. She wanted to be alone.

Arimura was not demanding, Tanaka said. It took a moment for him to think of how to say what he was thinking.

"It's just that she's so popular in Japan," he said.


Coping with transition

Arimura is far from a household name in the United States, even among golf fans, a stark contrast to her life just months ago.

She won 13 titles on the LPGA of Japan Tour and was the top-ranked player at the 2012 LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament. In Japan, her routine was dictated by a whirlwind of pro-ams, interviews and photo opportunities similar to what her more famous counterparts on the US tour experience. Here, she blends into the background of the tour. She has earned US$183,830 this season, far behind Park's nearly US$2.2 million.

Despite the drop in popularity, Arimura says she still believes the pitch she gave her sponsors when she convinced them that coming here was the right option.

"I thought I needed to leave my home," she said, trailing off before continuing: "It's really good for me, because I always rely on my parents, all the time. And to become pro, I need to rely on myself."

One of her major sponsors is TourStage, known as Bridgestone in the US. Dan Murphy, the executive vice-president for marketing and sales at Bridgestone Golf, said the company generally approved transitions like Arimura's. "It's stepping up to a world stage, and that world stage tends to benefit everybody involved," Murphy said.

Like Whan, Murphy said that the sport had outgrown the US and that the increasing diversity was positive.

"The US market is fairly flat, as a market, as a business," Murphy said. "So where is the opportunity for golf to grow? It's internationally, and Asian countries represent a huge opportunity."

Whether Arimura succeeded in Japan or in America, her fans back home would continue to follow her, Murphy said. Golf has a strong market in Asia, and Arimura's shift will only open her up to a new base, not close an old one.

She is 36th in the world rankings -a solid, if not satisfying, position. Three Japanese players are ahead of her. That does not seem to discourage Murphy. Arimura is a rookie this year, and he said Bridgestone expected her to take time to adjust.

"If she plays well, that will get a lot of people's attention," Murphy said. "And I think they'll create an emotional bond with her through her demeanour."

Regardless of what Tanaka and Ogata see in Arimura's walk or stance after a round, outsiders most likely see her as collected and professional. She is shy and gravitates towards other Japanese players, and she smiles while watching others talking together - a bit of a wallflower, but a friendly one. "If she were a man, I'd call her a gentleman," Murphy said with a laugh. "She's a gentle lady."

Gathered in a loose ring outside Grey Silo Golf Club in Waterloo, players chatted about the weather. It was just after 6am, and dark clouds were rolling in. An icy tinge in the air warned of a storm.

Arimura did not appear to be listening. Tanaka and Ogata had peeled off for a free breakfast of cold, soft fruit at the caddies' tent, so she was alone.

Standing at the edge of the ring of players, Arimura asked whether she could find breakfast inside and melted away when someone said yes.

She chose a table near an unlighted fireplace at the far end of the room. After cutting her sausage links into little pieces, she picked up a brochure that listed the times each player was assigned to practise that day.

Then she turned her attention to her phone. With one hand, she flipped through pictures and messages; with the other, she used a fork to eat small bites of sausage or eggs drizzled in ketchup.

Tanaka and Ogata joined her, but she did not look up. Tanaka picked up the packet, searching for Arimura's practice time. He read the list once, twice. He could not find her name.

Arimura, staring at her phone, was not thinking about her practice time. She was thinking about home in Japan. With no prompting, she looked up and reflected aloud about her houses. She has three, including the rented one in Florida. The other two are in Japan.

If she got married and had a child any time soon, she said, she would move back to Japan so her family could help her. She broke off from this line of thinking, not going into what that would mean for her career, and went back to her phone and a cup of hot tea, picking up the packet Tanaka had discarded.

She looked at the list of names again, a finger pressed hard into the glossy pages as she scanned. She suddenly looked up, her fingers untwisting her headphones, and said something to Ogata in Japanese. He replied, his eyes wide, and shook his head.

Her name was not listed. She was not assigned a practice time. Only highly ranked players were given a slot.

Jumping up, she tossed the packet on the table.

It did not matter. It was time to practise.

The New York Times