Caddies are part of playing golf in Japan. So it is often with relief that Japanese golfers find they are allowed to negotiate a course without strangers in their midst when they play abroad.
This also frees them from having to listen to someone admonish them in a foreign language for not heeding advice they hadn’t understood in the first place.
However, one group of Japanese golfers found themselves deeply indebted to their caddie during a round at the Elephant Hills Club in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe — and not just for tips on which iron to use.
Close to the majestic waterfalls, the course is renowned for both its beauty and its danger — being home to a variety of wildlife and unexploded shells from the war of independence.
In May 1998, a Japanese group I had taken to Africa were set to play the famous course. As we walked down from the hotel they told me that they were looking forward to a quiet round without the interference of a caddie. I told them that a friend of mine, while enjoying a beer after a round, had once seen a leopard cross the 18th fairway as the sun was setting. The response was a unified: “Who do you think we are, falling for that?”
As hard as I tried, they simply would not believe me — and insisted they would carry their own clubs.
This was not well-received by the golf club, who rely on tourists to pay the caddies’ wages in the form of tips. Eventually I suggested we should have one caddie for the four of us, rather than one each — adding that as there were snakes out there (including deadly black mambas), the caddie could be sent into the rough to retrieve errant balls. This seemed to do the trick, and off we headed to the first tee.
All was going reasonably well until we reached the fourth hole. OK, a group of warthogs had been sent running by one wayward ball, and a gang of young monkeys’ playtime ended when one golfer took five shots to get out of their sand pit — but such things are not unusual.
Then, as one of our party approached a water hazard our caddie suddenly sprang to life. “Stop, stop,” he yelled, pointing at a small sign by the reeds. The golfer, a hanko shop owner from Osaka, stopped, read the sign and laughed. “Is this another of your jokes?” he inquired.
It was only when I pointed at the loglike object moving slowly across the pond that he realized the sign was anything but a joke, as there were indeed crocodiles living in the water hazard.
Our intrepid golfers carried on, though noticeably blanched at the thought of what else might await them. One, a salaryman from Kobe, was pretty much a beginner, and spent a great deal of time preparing for each shot. While he was lining up his sixth shot on the 15th hole, our caddie suddenly whispered: “Hurry up, hurry up.”
Thinking the caddie was simply irritated at how long he was taking — after all, the more rounds in a day the more pay — our man continued with his practice.
“Hurry, hurry,” the caddie proclaimed, before suddenly running to the golfer while shushing him.
At that moment seven elephants smashed through some trees and bushes alongside the fairway and jogged up toward the 16th tee.
Having eventually completed our round, we headed for the 19th hole (the bar). The three Japanese players suddenly quickened their pace to make sure they had seats facing the 18th fairway, leaving me with my back to the course. They had realized that the story of the leopard was not so fanciful after all.