By Ally Bercola
There is still no pronouncement as to how much of a role that Little Babies Golf Tournament in 2018 will play in Naomi Osaka’s professional life. But after the Osaka grandchild set up shop at Colonial last weekend, I was a little hopeful the tournament was already firmly part of the Osaka family tree.
It was another banner tournament for a young golfer who is destined for both wins and fame, the nephew of PGA tournament winners, the first grandchild of a major champion, the daughter of one of the world’s biggest names in tennis.
But Naomi Osaka didn’t start golf. She’s less than 10 years old and wasn’t even driving yet, let alone wearing a yellow jacket in the locker room at Colonial Country Club, but here she was representing her country in the four-day tournament.
“I think what she proved today was really fun. She came and she played hard,” Noriko Sonchoonpoo, a national team trainer for the South Korean Women’s team, said of Naomi’s impressive showing. “I think the tournament showed she’s not only just one of those little girls that has potential.”
Still, it was surreal to see a South Korean on the driving range next to a grandchild of a PGA tour golfer. After all, Canadian former champion Paul Goydos tweeted Friday: “There’s a player on the range on the way to her news conference right now who won the LPGA the day before.”
“Naomi is going to be definitely up to playing with the big boys, and she’s going to be still going to have fun,” Sonchoonpoo said. “If her dad [agent Jun Fujimoto] gives her the opportunity, let her play against them. Let her have the experience. Let her learn and grow as a tennis player, not just as a golf player.”
And Osaka will need to adapt quickly. After starting out with the struggling American PGA Tour, this was never going to be the easiest first step for the 16-year-old to turn pro. The LPGA Tour continues to send its brightest young stars down the road to the lesser ranks to learn the business of the LPGA — and someday the pros.
In a half-hour press conference after winning the Women’s Heritage in March, No. 3 Hideki Matsuyama said that despite his win, he understood that it’s going to take time for him to learn the game on tour, and he was still focused on learning under the tutelage of Daniel Im, who played for 25 years before beginning his professional career in 2011 at the age of 30.
Fujimoto said he hopes Naomi can follow that path.
“Naomi has proven she is a very dedicated person and her parents give her the platform to be able to learn this sport,” he said. “By the age of 16 she needs to change everything, her priorities, her temperament, the way she acts.”
Sonchoonpoo, a former South Korean Open Women’s champion, also told Tetsuo Ryabe last year that the LPGA would be more than content to groom Osaka as the next great South Korean star, noting that Sooksu Ahn, a former college star, had established a spot at the top of South Korean golf.
“She will be a role model, I think, for young people in Korea and the rest of the world,” Sonchoonpoo said of Naomi. “I think there is so much potential for her.”
Over the course of last weekend, the JooMiJoo Insan Sang Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization, sponsored the LPGA International Junior Golf Championship, a girls’ junior tournament in the minor leagues of South Korean golf. So much has already been written about the tournament for which Osaka qualified. The group eventually raised over $500,000, much of it for thousands of kids in need throughout South Korea.
When Naomi’s grandfather, Masao Higashikubo, was asked about how the baby will be sent to the U.S. to enjoy all that America has to offer, he suggested that in a few years, the Osaka grandchild should be playing on the PGA Tour. Maybe that would happen before then, though. After all, that’s what big leagues are for.