PGA TOUR Champions stars meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, embrace culture
TOKYO, Japan—The doors opened and the brilliance of the Imperial Palace was illuminated by dozens of camera flashes. For eight PGA TOUR Champions players, the moment truly showed the significance of the inaugural JAPAN AIRLINES Championship—not just for a city or region but for the entire country.
Shinzō Abe welcomed eight players to his office in the heart of Tokyo on Tuesday night, and it became clear that this week’s first official PGA TOUR event in Japan is an accomplishment being celebrated in both a historical and modern context.
The Prime Minister took photos with each player—Billy Andrade, Olin Browne, John Daly, Jay Haas, Tom Lehman, Scott McCarron, Larry Nelson and Tom Watson—and it was followed by another round of media photos as the group exited the Imperial Palace.
The Prime Minister noted golf’s diplomatic impact and how the sport helped unify Japan and the United States after World War II. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was Japan’s Prime Minister from 1957-1960, and Kishi’s relationship with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was largely formed on the golf course.
“(Kishi) said that the relationship between the two countries became as close as ever and the leaders’ friendship on the golf course extended further, leading them to take on the efforts of amending the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, which now builds the foundation of today’s Japan-U.S. alliance,” Abe said.
Abe has followed in his grandfather’s footsteps, as he played 27 holes with U.S. President Donald Trump in February. He teased about the precise outcome of the match, saying the scores were “state secrets” but emphasized that golf continues to unify the two nations.
“It was indeed worthwhile being able to create a trusted relationship between our two leaders, much more than a summit meeting between two leaders,” Abe said. “I believe that the Japan-U.S. relations have been forged by support from many people from all over the countries, and I do hope that through golf we'll be able to further foster our trust and friendship that we have forged between our two countries of United States and Japan.”
On behalf of the 63 players competing in the JAPAN AIRLINES Championship, Watson echoed Abe’s sentiments and offered gratitude as only a World Golf Hall of Famer can.
“I share your understanding of how golf brings people together,” Watson said. “I’ve been coming to Japan for many years, as Larry Nelson and many of us have, to play professional golf. We're very lucky to be able to play a game for a living and compete around the world. Japan is one of our favorite places to come and we’ll be coming back again.” Watson is the owner of two Dunlop Phoenix victories on the Japan Golf Tour, in 1980 and 1997.
Japanese media captured every moment of the 30-minute visit, which was compared favorably to occasions when the Prime Minister has hosted Japanese Olympic medalists and baseball players. By opening his doors, Prime Minister Abe also opened the JAPAN AIRLINES Championship, a first on the schedule and another milestone for the countries. The JAPAN AIRLINES Championship begins Friday at the Taiso Kawata-designed Narita Golf Club, with players vying for the U.S. $2,500,000 purse, $400,000 going to the winner.
Lehman, who has supported the Folds of Honor since its inception and was present again this year at the Patriot Cup Monday, joins a prestigious list of past recipients, including golf legend Jack Nicklaus, President George W. Bush, PGA Tour Champions player Corey Pavin and PGA Tour player Rickie Fowler.
For the first time in award history, a panel of six men, David Bond, David Charney, Dr. John Rooney, Paul Sizemore, Sanjay Meshri and Tom Russell, have been named as this year's Colonel David "Flap" Kirst Award winner. Previous recipients of this award include FOX News producer, Gavin Hadden, Rocky Sickmann and Brian Whitcomb.
"Tom inspires us all to be better, its a gift. He truly places service before self. He is a blessing to all that know him," said Major Dan Rooney, Folds of Honor founder.
Lehman won the 1996 Tour Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa during a year he also won the Open Championship and narrowly missed in the U.S. Open and was Player of the Year on the PGA Tour. He also finished second to Frank Conner in 1991 in a Ben Hogan Tour event held at The Golf Club of Oklahoma.
The Corporal Brock Bucklin Patriot Award is presented to an individual who displays unwavering, meritorious and extraordinary qualities of leadership, service and dedication to advancing genuine patriotism in America. The namesake for this award, Corp. Bucklin, sacrificed his life in defense of America's freedoms; his sacrifice is memorialized in this award and was the driving force for the creation of Folds of Honor. The recipient of this award recognizes such sacrifices and supports those who have made them. The characteristics of this prestigious award are in keeping with the best traditions of the United States of America, its founders and its defenders. Bucklin's son, Jacob Green, was the first scholarship recipient from Folds of Honor.
"These are amazing patriots committed to serving those who serve us," said Rooney. "We are very proud to have these men as members of the Folds of Honor family and are thrilled to present each of them with the Kirst Award."
The Colonel David "Flap" Kirst Award is presented to an individual who demonstrates service before self, integrity first and a commitment to excellence. Col. Kirst was a great fighter pilot, husband and father. HIs life embodied the traditional American values that make this country great. Flap mentored Major Dan Rooney over the years and pushed him to become a fighter pilot. He passed away of a heart attack in 2013. Flag was a huge supporter of Folds of Honor, a positive force in society and an example of a great American.
Lehman and Bond, Charney, Rooney, Sisemore, Meshri, and Russell were presented with their respective awards at the Patriot Cup Invitational Gala on Sunday, May 28, which accompanies the Patriot Cup Invitational, a weekend golf tournament and National gala celebrating our nation's heroes. This patriotic event is attended by players from the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions, and military golfers from across the country and a host of celebrities to create an unforgettable experience for the families of fallen and disabled service members. All event proceeds benefit Folds of Honor, an organization dedicated to providing educational scholarships for the children and spouses of fallen or disabled veterans.
For more information or to donate in support of a Folds of Honor scholarship, visit www.foldsofhonor.org.