From left, Tom Lehman, Tom Watson, Scott McCarron, Jay Haas, Olin Brown, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, John Daly, Billy Andrade, Larry Nelson and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura.
From left, Tom Lehman, Tom Watson, Scott McCarron, Jay Haas, Olin Brown, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, John Daly, Billy Andrade, Larry Nelson and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura.

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 Jack Nicklaus-designed Narita Golf Club, with players vying for the U.S. $2,500,000 purse, $375,000 going to the winner.