Any day now you may come in from a round of golf at your local club and find one or more smiling, courteous and impeccably dressed Japanese gentlemen inspecting the locker room. Even if you have played 36 holes and the light is dying, even if your day of golf has left you frustrated and depressed, go out and play another 18. You may not get many more chances. For your Japanese visitors are not casual sightseers nor are they, necessarily, golfers. They have come to buy your club.
The developing Japanese interest in overseas golf locations is no Yellow Peril fantasy. Instead, it is a quite logical extension of Japan's golf boom, one of the most feverish and sustained participant sport manias in anybody's history. The expansion is fueled by three powerful propellants: 1) Japan does not now, and perhaps never will, have enough courses to accommodate the number of people who want to play; 2) Japanese tourists are seldom able to gain access to U.S. clubs in the areas they most frequently visit; and 3) Japanese businessmen have discovered that a golf club, at home or abroad, can be as lucrative a moneymaking machine as, say, a Xerox franchise.
If these entrepreneurs were simply buying up (or building) golf clubs as overseas investments, without disturbing Western formats of private and public golf clubs, there would be little cause for concern on the part of American players. But the Japanese have a very different idea of how a club should be managed and who should patronize it. The scheme is not only to export golf but golfers. Not stars like Jumbo Ozaki or Takaaki Kono or Takashi Murakami, but eager young executives and white-collar workers who, thanks to Japan's inflated but flourishing bonus-plus-expense-account economy, will pay almost anything and will go 10,000 miles, if necessary, to break free of their ubiquitous driving ranges and play on real golf courses. The effort to supply them with foreign playing grounds has nothing to do with building bridges between nations. Rather, the promoters—and they include some of Japan's most formidable conglomerates—see overseas courses as permanent yen laundries designed to wash vacation money out of Japanese travelers without risking foolish expenditure on the economies of other countries.
As it did once before, Hawaii has suffered the first impact of eastward expansion, but this time the Japanese are far better armed than they were on Dec. 7, 1941, and they already have gone beyond the islands to establish beachheads on the mainland. They are pitting the almighty yen a currency in seemingly boundless supply, against the scarce and limply devalued dollar. A year ago a Tokyo tourist could fly to and from Honolulu on Japan Air Lines, stay in a Japanese-owned hotel, go sightseeing on Japanese-owned tour buses and spend his "discretionary money" in Japanese-operated restaurants, stores and curio shops. Now he can play golf at any one of four Japanese-owned clubs. Golf, indeed, may provide the coup de gr�ce which—to risk an interlinguistic pun—also means cutting the grass right out from under American golfers' feet. For the humiliating fact is that most Americans—including, in Hawaii, many of Japanese ancestry—simply cannot afford to play on a Japanese-owned course, not even a public one.
The case of the Makaha Inn and Country Club, a hotel and 36-hole public layout 45 miles from Honolulu, is an instructive one. Because of its relative remoteness, the inn was only 19% occupied when representatives of Dai-ichi Kanko Inc. of Tokyo appeared on the scene last spring. They bought Makaha for $19 million, declared it would remain open to the public "on a limited basis," and announced their intention to sell 3,000 country club memberships in Japan, with the first 500 priced at $10,000 each. They also revealed plans for a $10-million, 400-room expansion of the inn and the renovation of both courses. When all the Tokyo memberships have been sold, not many Hawaiian or mainland golfers can hope to get a tee time even if they can afford the greens fees (they now are only $14.50, including use of a golf cart—a fee structure that as we shall see would seem conservative in Japan; Dai-ichi officials say privately that the fees will be made "more realistic" next January). Other Japanese companies have bought 50% of the Hawaii Country Club, and all of The Francis Ii Brown Country Club. The latter, situated on pleasantly rolling hills on the outskirts of Honolulu, has been renamed The Pearl Country Club because it overlooks Pearl Harbor.
There are some 11,000 golf courses in the U.S., and the Japanese obviously are not going to buy them all. Some have built-in safeguards against acquisition—private clubs, for example, in which members have a controlling equity, or state, county and municipal courses. Adverse climatic conditions and lack of tourist appeal rule out others. The pressure points are San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, Washington and Miami—places most Japanese would like to visit and places, unfortunately, that can least afford to lose a single links (well over a million rounds were played last year on Los Angeles' 13 city-owned courses). Two months ago the Peacock Gap Golf Club in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, was sold to Nitto Kogyo Ltd. The Taiheiyo Club, an offshoot of the Heiwa Sogo Bank and sponsor of the $300,000 Taiheiyo Open, is surveying clubs in sections of New Jersey adjacent to New York. The Church of Perfect Liberty is preparing to build major golf complexes just inshore from Malibu in southern California and just outside London, England. Another Japanese firm reportedly is dickering with the owners of La Costa, the elegant spa north of San Diego, and the owners may be confronted by an offer that even Don Corleone could not refuse.
What happened out there while we were all watching Ben and Sam and Arnie and Jack and Lee? What suddenly converted the Japanese from a passive nation of spectator sportsmen preoccupied with sumo, besuboru and memories of Babe Ruth into a lustful mob of club-swinging Satyrs? (The term "fan," or even its stem "fanatic," is too pallid to describe the Japanese attitude toward golf—they lust for gorufu like Burton wanted Taylor, or vice versa.) More important from an American standpoint, how have the Japanese converted this fantastic rage to play into an enormously profitable industry, an alluring speculative venture and—now—an alarmingly exportable commodity? Have they beaten their samurai swords into nine-irons? Has the game become gorufu teikoku-shugi—golf imperialism?
To answer any or all of these questions one must go back to a Sunday late in October of 1957 when a Japanese golfer named Torakichi (Pete) Nakamura holed a two-foot putt on the 18th green of Tokyo's Kasumigaseki Country Club to win the Canada Cup (later renamed the World Cup). Nakamura and his teammate Koichi Ono had a combined score of 557, nine strokes better than the second-place U.S. team of Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret, and better to much better than the teams from 28 other countries that participated. Nakamura himself finished 14 under par, seven strokes ahead of Snead, South Africa's Gary Player and Wales' Dave Thomas. Although the tournament was amply reported at the time, no Westerner could then have guessed the impact the result would have on the Japanese people. Nakamura's victory demonstrated to millions of Japanese that they could compete successfully, given the opportunity, with the rest of the world in sport, as well as in optics and industry. It also aroused a sudden interest in golf among people who had never played it or expected to be able to. At the time Japan had fewer than 100 courses, and for the most part they were the provinces of foreigners or the very rich. Golf's relationship to the general populace was roughly akin to that of polo to the American people in the 1930s.
As of this writing, Japan has 747 courses (680 of them membership, 61 privately owned "public" layouts and six publicly owned prefectural or municipal courses). An estimated 220 more are under construction, and 520 are in various stages of projection, planning or membership solicitation. In addition, the country has nearly 5,000 driving ranges (600 in Tokyo itself), many open from dawn until 10 p.m., some of them giant three-deckers that will accommodate 155 swingers at a time and also will provide baby-sitting. There are minicourses in most cities, as well as three-pars crammed into residential districts. In fact, golf has come so far so fast that it has achieved the modern accolade—there is a movement among prefectural governments, justified in a few cases, against gorufu kogai—golf "pollution."
If, in a country with the enormous land vistas of the U.S., these golf concentrations seem surprising, one should remember that Japan has slightly more than 100 million people crowded onto the four main islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, with a combined land area of only 143,000 square miles—4,000 fewer than the state of Montana. Moreover, less than one-fifth of the land is arable ( Japan's misty mountains take up a lot of room), and Japan must import much of its vital foodstuffs. Even 1,500 courses and 5,000 driving ranges are just a drop in the misoshiru (bean soup) for 100 million people. One gets the feeling that there are enough golfers or would-be golfers to fill 5,000 courses. But how many golfers are there, really? Recently the newspaper Asahi—after a careful survey—guessed 10 million. Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka sneers at that estimate—16 million, says Tanaka.