SI Vault
Richard W. Johnston
January 07, 1974
To satisfy its yen for golf, Japan is turning out new courses like cameras while buying up old ones in the U.S.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
January 07, 1974

The Rising Game Of The Rising Sun

To satisfy its yen for golf, Japan is turning out new courses like cameras while buying up old ones in the U.S.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

With the development of the ecology backlash, what will happen to all the other projected courses? Will the prefectures, seemingly unable to do much about Japan's real pollution problems—its mercurial seas and chemicalized air—make golf a scapegoat? Yoshitaka Komiyama, vice-president of the Taiheiyo Club and the adopted son of Eizo Komiyama, board chairman of the Heiwa Sogo Bank, is optimistic. In October the second Taiheiyo Open was held and, glory be, won by Japan's own Jumbo Ozaki. "It is our hope to make Taiheiyo the fifth leg of the Grand Slam," Komiyama said. He had no comment on the eastward push, but boasted, "We now have courses open in Taiwan, Guam and Korea, and 25 more under construction in Japan. We plan to build 100 more between northern Hokkaido and Okinawa."

Two prefectures which have cracked down hard on golf are Kanagawa and Chiba. Kanagawa is the crowded state that encompasses Yokohama and the shores of Sagami Bay—"The Miami Beach of Japan." Chiba, across the bay from Tokyo, is a relatively flat province that already has so many courses—45—that it sometimes is referred to as "The Golfers' Ginza." Since housing and agricultural lands are desperately short in both provinces, the bans make some sense. The same thing may be true of Hyogo prefecture (Kobe), which has 56 courses in operation.

But in other prefectures the concern with gorufu kogai seems vaguely based. There is no nationwide "forever wild" pressure group in Japan, and even if there were it is hard to believe that the archipelago's spinal mountains—beyond the reach of the bravest bulldozer—do not supply enough backpack country to suit even the Sierra Club. However, golf writers as well as golfers are worried about the spiraling costs of club memberships and the ever-mounting greens fees at privately owned public courses.

It is possible, of course, that the rage for golf will fade away, as did a previous lust for bowling. Japan is full of bowling pavilions, but business has diminished since the first burst of enthusiasm, and some of the lanes have gone broke.

Kenji Osano, "the ape from the foot of Mount Fuji," doubts that the golf boom will decline, but he is concerned by the inadequacy of facilities. "More public courses must be built," he said in a rare interview, and Osano is about to build a 27-hole public course near his Fuji birthplace. He has no problem himself. "I guess I belong to 20 courses," Osano said. "I play Tanaka at Koganei—almost always beat him. I really am a much better golfer than he is." Osano has a 13 handicap.

Old Pete Nakamura, now 58 but the man who started it all with that amazing Canada Cup round in 1957, is hard to catch—he plays a tournament a week during the season and declares that he feels "as young as any of the men around the courses." Nakamura sniffs at the idea that there are no opportunities for the young. "We didn't have girl caddies until after World War II, and then only because young men were needed to rebuild the country," he says. "Now there are many other job opportunities for girls, and there is a caddie shortage. Any boy who wants to play can get a caddie job and a chance to practice. Lower-income people can become quite proficient at driving ranges while they accumulate enough money to buy club memberships. Most middle-class Japanese can afford membership in at least one club." Using a carbon-graphite club ($280 in Japan) while playing a side-bet practice match with the club manager, Nakamura cracked a long drive from the first tee. As he started down the fairway, he said, "Most Japanese golfers play for chocolates—I play for money."

Compared to the kind of money the golf promotion companies are after, old Pete actually is playing for chocolate-coated peanuts. Despite prefectural objections, there seems little doubt that the internal expansion will continue. It also seems obvious that the eastward thrust has just begun, and that many more U.S. clubs will be acquired in the next few years. That is bad news for U.S. golfers, but is it good news for Japanese professionals? Hardly. As so often happens, sport and money make dubious allies. Most of the promotion companies, both those concentrating on Japan and those moving into the U.S., want soft courses that will entice but not frustrate the high-handicap golfer. As Hiroshi Hori said, the people who build or buy golf clubs at home or overseas "are not doing it for the love of the game but to make money." In this connection it will be interesting to see whether Dai-ichi Kanko's "stage" modifications of Hawaii's Makaha course will be designed to make it harder—or easier.

Seibu, with the free hand it has given the Joneses, is an honorable exception to Hori's rule, and it is possible the Palmer, Player, Jacklin and Nicklaus courses—if their sponsors permit it—will offer the kind of challenges Japan's pros need to become world class golfers. Such challenges are not available now. Even the Nakamura links, despite their deep bunkers, do not penalize inaccurate approach play. While a forgiving course makes for pleasant afternoons in the sun, it does not hone championship skills. No Japanese golfer ever has done well on the U.S. tour or, in fact, anywhere outside Japan. If Jumbo Ozaki, who hits off the tee like Nicklaus and hits short irons like your next-door neighbor, were to spend 1974 at Golf 72, in 1975 he could prove a formidable opponent for many American pros. By 1980 he might even win the Japanese Masters Championship at Augusta.

1 2 3 4