All eyes on Japan

The country's golf courses and culture remain impressive in spite of a recent decline in participation and courses.
Among Japan's most significant golf clubs is Hirono, originally designed by Charles H. Allison and recently renovated.

TOYKO — When the sporting world turns its attention to the 2020 Olympic Games next summer, the golf event will be very different from 2016 Olympiad. Whereas Brazil's golf culture was practically nonexistent prior to the debut of the Rio Olympic Course, Japan is one of the most golf-obsessed nations in the world, even if a recent decline in participation and number of available facilities casts a shadow.

Japanese golf will enjoy numerous events in the spotlight leading up to the Tokyo games. The men's schedule includes The Zozo Championship at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club in Chiba, Oct. 24-27. The elite, 78-man field will gather for the first-ever PGA Tour event in this country, co-sanctioned by the Japan Golf Tour Organization. The course sits 26 miles east of Tokyo’s glistening downtown Ginza district, just over halfway to Narita International Airport. Among those committed to play are Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Jason Day and Sergio Garcia, as well as national heroes Ryo Ishikawa and Hideki Matsuyama.

The draw, beyond a total purse of $9.75 million, is a chance to get a sneak peek at Kasumigaseki Country Club's East Course, site of the 2020 Olympics golf competition. Give the intensity of Tokyo's notorious traffic, the likelihood is that the players will be hopping the 62 miles west to Kasumigaseki via helicopter. When you have 43 million people living in a metropolitan area the size of Connecticut, getting around isn’t easy. Small wonder the trains are always crowded.

Also on the men’s docket is a $350,000 skins game on Monday, Oct. 21, involving Day, Matsuyama, McIlroy, Woods (broadcast on Golf Channel and internationally on Golf TV). A week later, it's the women’s turn to showcase their skills at the $1.5 million Toto Japan Classic at Seta Golf Course's North Course. The event, co-sponsored by the LPGA and the LPGA of Japan Tour, takes place near Kyoto, Japan’s seventh most populous city with 1.5 million people, 280 miles southwest of Tokyo.

A recent tour of 15 golf courses in the area between Tokyo and Kyoto revealed a country where the game still exercises a powerful hold, even if the grip is somewhat relaxed from its peak in the late 1980s.

Podcast: Klein on his travels to Japan

Japan ranks behind only the United States when it comes to golf course supply. According to the National Golf Foundation, Japan has 2,227 golf facilities (seven percent of the world’s supply) for its 127 million people – or 57,000 people per course. The comparable U.S. numbers are 14,640 facilities (45 percent of world supply) for 330 million – or 22,540 people per course. About 6.5 percent of the Japan population plays golf, compared to about 8 percent for the U.S. If Japan seems to be a more golf-intense country than the U.S. it’s due largely to geographic concentration; Japan occupies a landmass the size of Montana.

Following centuries of self-imposed cultural and economic isolation from the West, Japan only creaked open its doors to golf at the turn of the last century. That’s when a British tradesman, Arthur Hasketh Groom, obviously laboring under the influence of hickory shafts and gutta-percha golf balls, built a four-hole layout near the port city of Kobe. By 1904, Kobe Golf Club expanded to 18 holes. Its character as the country’s oldest club remains very much intact at today, at 4,049 yards, par 61.

Trade brought contact with Westerners who introduced the game to major port cities. By the 1920s, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was sneaking off to play golf at newly formed Tokyo Golf Club occasionally with his wife. Until 1931, however, golf remained an elite, private affair in Japan, with golf courses embodying a scruffy character that was entirely local and quaint. Among the extant examples of this are the Kawana Resort's Oshima Course, built in 1925 and featuring numerous blind shots, quirky mounds – entirely natural – and snap doglegs.

The clear highlight on the back nine of Kawana's Fuji course is the 480-yard, par-5 15h hole, where the Galloping Gertie fairway evokes a bridge roadway buckling in severe wind.

All of that changed when British architect Charles H. Alison made a three-month design visit to Japan from December 1930 to February 1931. A veteran of design partnerships with the likes of Alistair MacKenzie and Harry S. Colt, Alison brought to bear the influence of British links and heathlands to a dozen high-profile courses, some of new designs and others renovations of existing ones.

His original work at a second Tokyo Golf Club did not survive World War II. But two of his greatest creations remain as world-class examples of creative golf architecture. Hirono Golf Club, 12 miles northwest of Kobe, has just been through a major restoration by the British firm of Martin Ebert and Tom Mackenzie. It lives up to its reputation as “the Pine Valley of Japan” thanks to dramatic swales, diagonal hazards and exposed sandy stretches.

Perhaps more stunning, if not in fully restored shape, is Alison’s seaside masterpiece, the Fuji Course at Kawana Golf Resort. With its wild fairways that seem to cascade into and alongside the Pacific Ocean and its view of the country’s famed mountain to the northwest, Kawana-Fuji is a monument to the grandeur of the Japanese coastal landscape.

Japanese golf, however, came to a grinding halt during World War II. The country’s dictatorial regime, in pursuit of regional expansion and occupation, appropriated golf courses for military exercises and medical facilities. Release back of these lands for private recreational use did not take place until allowed by the U.S. occupying force in the early 1950s. By then, with the country focusing on postwar recovery and in the early stages of what would come to be recognized as a major economic boom, Japan was starting to develop a middle class with disposable income and leisure interest.

Golf got a big public boost in 1957, when the country’s two-man professional team of Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono surprised the world by winning the Canada Cup (soon to be called the World Cup) at Kasumigaseki Country Club's East Course. The duo beat the U.S. team of Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead by nine strokes. Nakamura took the individual title over Snead and Gary Player by seven. This was big news, followed live on TV throughout Japan, and it helped spawn public interest in the game, along with widespread media coverage featuring a telegenic Arnold Palmer.

Klein on the Olympic golf venue

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Get to know the 2020 Olympics host golf course in Japan

Golf began to bloom in Japan. By 1969, the country had two million golfers and 400 courses. Just over two decades later – in 1991 – the golf population surpassed 10 million and they were playing on 2,100 courses. Most were in the private sector, many of them built on land unsuitable for farming and thus severe enough in gradient and routing as to require continuous cart paths. The emphasis was on a model of elite recreational consumption, with sumptuous clubhouses, leisurely rounds and lengthy meals during and after. One curiosity of the country's golf culture has been reliance upon two sets of greens - one for warm-season Bermudagrass, the other for cool-season bentgrass. Only in the past two decades has the conversion to a single set of putting surfaces taken place, with many courses still sporting two sets of greens.

Two sets of greens, one for warm grass and the other cool, at Tokyo Golf Club.

For those middle- and lower-class residents for whom private club amenities were out of reach, there was always the driving range to learn the game – and for many, to play golf without ever visiting a golf course. The dense armature of netting became a common sight in Japanese cities as multi-story driving ranges popped up – 3,700 by 2005, according to a 2015 golf industry white paper. By the way, there must be something about the way public health codes emphasize netting. They are everywhere in Japan, not only around soccer fields but around fields of the major-league Nippon Professional Baseball Organization.

No game, however popular, is immune from economic forces. Golf’s popularity took a hit as the Japanese economy began to slow down in the 1990s. In the last decade-plus, Japan has lost 500 golf courses and 700 driving ranges. Player count is down about two million from its peak. So, too, the torrid speculative market in private club memberships, which had created something of a bubble economy of its own. Case in point: Koganie Country Club, in a lush, wealthy part of metro Tokyo. Membership there today will cost you $600,000, a mere tenth of the market rate two decades ago.

Though industry economics have come back down towards earth, the game still enjoys popularity. Downtown shopping districts sport golf shops selling equipment and the crowded subways contain ads for golf manufacturers and clothiers. It’s common on the trains to see juniors straddling full sets of clubs, presumably on their way to or from play at a range or public course. And the leaderboards of the major golf tours still sport Japanese names regularly. Up-and-coming stars like Nasa Hataoka and Hinako Shibuno have followed in the footsteps of World Golf Hall of Famers Chako Higuchi and Ayako Okamoto. Likewise, the enshrinement of Isao Aoki and Jumbo Ozaki was a model for the path trod by Matsuyama, Shugo Imahira and Ryo Ishikawa.

Japanese golf has bounced back from some trying times and remains strong at both the elite levels and for popular play. As the whole world will soon witness first-hand, the game there is on very good ground.

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Veteran golf travel, history and architecture journalist, Bradley S. Klein has written more than 1,500 feature articles on course architecture, resort travel, golf course development, golf history and the media for such other publications as Golfweek, Golf Digest, Financial Times, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He has published seven books on golf architecture and history, including Discovering Donald Ross, winner of the USGA 2001 International Book Award. In 2015, Klein won the Donald Ross Award for lifetime achievement from the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Follow Brad on Twitter
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All eyes on Japan