Golf: Land of the rising golf star

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The Independent Online
Even though Tiger Woods won the least prize money in yesterday's $600,000 (pounds 380,000) skins match, he received the loudest applause from a Japanese audience who know a superstar when they see one.

Woods led the prize money at $110,000 after a birdie on the third hole and an eagle on the seventh, but unusually for this phenomenon - whose earning power in the last 12 months has matched any Spice Girl's - he failed to grab any more on the remaining nine holes.

But Woods, together with his Nike marketing machine, still had a good time as he went about seducing Japan in his "Tiger Woods Invitational" golf competition. "I can't reiterate how much fun I had today," he said. And the feeling was that the crowd enjoyed it even more.

Shigeki Maruyama, a second-year professional who has emerged as the heir apparent to Jumbo Ozaki as Japan's best golfer, cashed in $200,000 after a birdie on the 534-yard par-five hole, but earned far more in the way of recognition from his fanatical home crowd.

They roared with excitement as they saw Woods walking toward Maruyama to congratulate him. Such has been the hype heaped around the arrival of Woods that Maruyama and the other two competitors, Mark O'Meara and Nick Price, were hardly noticed as they struggled to keep up with the 21-year-old. When the focus did switch to Maruyama at the press conference afterwards, he acted shocked, saying: "I'm just so happy I could play with such a superstar. It's like getting an early Christmas present."

It was to prove an expensive early Christmas present for the Japanese who arrived in their thousands and came hours before the tee-off to watch Woods practise. A ticket for yesterday's skins cost 30,000 yen (pounds 160). But they didn't seem to worry and as the headlines in the Sankei Sports newspaper declared, "Tiger Typhoon has Landed in Japan," and "The Weekend of Dreams has Just Begun."

"He's just great," said Aki Okamoto, a local hospital employee. "I enjoyed just walking the same distance as Tiger."

The skins had plenty of drama, if the interest of the crowd needed to be maintained. The 18th had to be played six times to find a winner before Maruyama eventually denied Woods the last cheque. And despite having a local winner, you could sense the crowd was disappointed not to be able to cheer Woods home. "I'm sick and tired of that 18th hole," Woods said. But the Tokyo faithful could have watched him play it all day.

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