It is not exactly true that the only reason the Japanese are giving up the kimono is that you cannot swing a four-iron while wearing one. And it would be an exaggeration to say that the favorite dress in Malaya is Bermuda shorts because that's what the King wears every day when he goes out to his country club. But it is certainly a matter of fact that golf is influencing the Oriental mind as few things have done since Confucius first proclaimed his maxims 2,500 years ago—and pastel slacks in Tokyo and sport shorts in Kuala Lumpur are all a "part of it.
In Japan, businessmen by the dozens of thousands persecute themselves through endless hours of practice, in the knowledge that the golf course is the best place to catch a good customer. In Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Malayan politicians who once believed that only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the noonday sun now plod the fairways in hopes of bumping into the King or the prime minister. In Bangkok, Thai army officers just a couple of generations removed from the paddyfields are back in the rice looking for lost golf balls. In Hong Kong, Chinese merchants have clipped their mandarin fingernails to the quick to avoid punching holes in their soft, thin golf gloves. In short, golf has arrived in the Orient.
Nowhere has the arrival been such a smash hit as in Japan, where golf has attained the level of folk sport. As of the last five years, this game, which once attracted no more than a few thousand rich patricians and politicians, has captured the enthusiasm of more than 2 million people. In that same five years, the number of golf courses in Japan has jumped from 70 to more than 300—a rate of four new golf courses a month in a nation where arable land is as precious as water in the Sahara. Elsewhere in the Orient there are something like four times as many golfers as there were a dozen years ago, and there are three to four times as many courses. Yet what is truly conspicuous in the smaller nations is the enormous prestige of golf. In Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Hong Kong, a prince of business or politics needs his golf the way an automobile needs an engine. Within the past year, President Diosdado Macapagal of the Philippines was forced to take up the game because he was missing out on a lot of the important discussions whenever heads of state gathered to consider their mutual problems. The man who gave him his first set of clubs was Tunku Abdul Rahman, the ex-prime minister of Malaya and now the prime minister of the new federation of Malaysia as well—which only goes to show what a man can accomplish on a golf course.
Among the Japanese, golf is not so much a game as an addiction. A friendly little Tokyo golf date begins about dawn and ends when most sensible people would be sipping a demitasse, yawning and thinking of bed. The Japanese start out at daybreak in the faint hope that they will be able to reach the golf course before heavy traffic clogs the roads. With luck, there is a chance of wolfing down breakfast at one of the close-in golf clubs by 8:30 and teeing off by 9. The tee-off does not, however, result in a speedup—Japanese have made a ritual art out of slow play. Probably because they need to compensate for the headlong pace at which they conduct the rest of their activities, they move across a golf course like somnambulists. Every shot is preceded, by a number of precise, methodical practice swings. They pause frequently at charming little teahouses, strategically spotted around the course, where one of those paragons of femininity, a young Japanese girl, serves them refreshments along with a chilled and scented washcloth with which to mop their brows. They pause before playing each hole to study their scores and adjust their wagers, which are usually negotiated in terms of chocolate bars, although the Japanese loathe sweets. With any luck and not too many lost balls, they may sit down to lunch by one or 1:30 in the afternoon.
The morning round is a mere overture. Having gone to so much trouble to get to the golf course, the Japanese have no inclination to settle for a mere 18 holes. After lunch there is another round, usually with the bets doubled. Toward nightfall, the exhausted golfer trudges into the locker room, tosses his saturated clothes into a wicker basket and luxuriates in the most truly happy moment ol his day—the bath. A Japanese bath, properly administered, can make up for any hardship.
Golf and business are so tightly interwoven in Japan that, as one American resident puts it, "the average businessman golfer doesn't even see his club chits." That is to say, the club bill goes straight to the office bookkeeper. There is one prestigious club just outside Tokyo that will not accept a member unless he is either president or chairman of the board of a well-established firm. Yet once a man has joined a club—a preliminary to his golfing career that can cost him as much as $15,000—the actual playing of the game is no more expensive than in the U.S. A set of the best Japanese clubs—four woods, nine irons and a putter—can be had for well under $200. This last economy is not much appreciated, however. No Japanese golfer with any respect for his own status would want to be caught in public with a set of made-in- Japan sticks in his bag. It would be like going to a Madison Avenue lunch at "21" wearing a powder-blue suit. At the very least, one should own a set of imported Wilson, Spalding or MacGregor clubs. They will cost around $400 or $450, better than 33% above the U.S. price. If one wants to really put on the dog, he carries a set of Kenneth Smith clubs, for which he has paid $750. American visitors who arrive in Japan with a golf bag are often startled to find their regular luggage ignored by a customs agent who, instead, scrutinizes their golf equipment as if the shaft of. the sand wedge were packed with heroin. Golf-club smuggling has become a fine art among the Japanese because of the high duty on imported clubs.
Much, but not nearly enough, has been written about the girl caddies in Japan. Without question they are the best thing that has happened to the game since the invention of the hickory shaft. Like most of their countrywomen, they are sturdy of limb, smiling and intensely eager to please. Any golfer would be a clod to show his disagreeable side in the presence of such company—which may explain why the average Japanese golfer takes misfortune so cheerfully. You will often find him grinning happily after hitting several miserable shots in succession, though it should also be remembered that the Japanese smile in the face of great tragedy, such as the death of a loved one.
The competition for the services of these girl caddies is becoming more intense as the Japanese golf expansion continues. In order to lure the young ladies from their provincial homes—and still meet the competition of other careers available to them, such as nightclub hostess—the golf clubs are establishing comfortable dormitories for the girls and filling their off hours with instruction in such womanly arts as flower arranging, sewing and tea serving.
A king on the tee
In other parts of Asia, golf is largely a British legacy, and as such it blends a decent amount of restraint with Asian enthusiasm. At the Selangor Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, one finds the typical metamorphosis from a casual British recreation to an Asian preoccupation. A day of golf now begins by the dawn's early light at the Selangor Club, largely because the Malayans want to finish before the worst of the midday heat. While the last gray remnants of night are still hanging over the course, a black Cadillac limousine flying a small yellow ensign from the top purrs softly up to the clubhouse, and a husky little man bounds friskily out of the car. He is Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the elected king of Malaya. Moments later, a black Chrysler limousine with a personal standard flapping from the left fender deposits a tall, bespectacled and almost elderly man. This is the Tunku. Lesser officials, such as the deputy prime minister, other cabinet ministers and ambassadors park their own Cadillacs, Rollses and Mercedes-Benzes in the parking lot. In a matter of minutes the Selangor Club is overflowing with important political and business figures, all dressed in shorts, chattering amiably and ready for the first tee.