Golf: a sport that mirrors the nation

by Richard Freeman

Forget indicators such as unemployment levels and interest rates; there’s no simpler way to chart Japan’s economic well-being than by tracing the ebb and flow of the popularity of golf.

Though it might have been custom-made for Japan — offering as it does the chance for city folk to get out into manicured “nature” and challenge themselves as individuals within a group setting — a primitive ancestor of golf is thought to have evolved far away in ancient Rome, where a game called paganica used a bent stick to drive a soft, feather-stuffed ball at a target.

In more recent times, a close relative of the modern game, called “golfe,” began to be played in the 18th century in Scotland, and it was there that the first formal club, the Company of Gentlemen Golfers (now the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers), was founded in Edinburgh in 1744. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, established 10 years later at St. Andrews, even further north in Scotland, soon became the sport’s official ruling body — a role it now shares with the United States Golf Association.

Then, across the world a century and a half later, as Japan was opening up to the West its people were introduced to sports such as rugby, soccer and baseball — along with two Scottish pastimes that arrived at around the same time.

However, as the golf authority and friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Simpson, opined: “Unlike that other Scottish game of whisky drinking, excess in golf is not injurious to your health.

Nonetheless, to this day the two “games” complement each other to a tee in many people’s minds. As Yuichiro Makita, a doctor at Juntendo University, puts it: “Golf allows me to have a drink while I am playing. Also, unlike fishing and skiing, I need only spend a day away from the office. I don’t need to travel too far or spend a night in a hotel.”

In a largely mountainous country with 67 percent forest cover, though, golf courses were hard to build in Japan, and the sport was at first slow to spread. Prior to World War II, in fact, there were only 23 courses, and though there were 72 by 1956, golf was still regarded as a sport for the privileged.

In line with a growing sense of national self-confidence, though, the first “golf boom” — in which the number of courses rose to 424 between 1960 and 1964 — coincided with Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda’s drive to double national income. This was followed in 1972 by Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s decision to invest heavily in major public works schemes such as highway construction, which led indirectly to the number of courses topping 1,000.

The third and biggest boom began under Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1985, after he instigated a massive construction program using private-sector capital to stimulate the economy.

Meanwhile, the new Resort Law provided tax breaks and national and local government support for the construction of golf courses, hotels, tennis courts, ski resorts, marinas and other leisure facilities. Permission was granted to turn agricultural land and forest areas into golf courses and the like.

With most of the country’s coastal sites already built on, Japan’s courses were far different from the links (or seaside) courses of Scotland. At courses like St. Andrews and Muirfield, the variable weather and the thick rough bordering the fairways and greens ensure that any one hole can play quite differently in the space of just a few hours. At the 2002 British Open at Muirfield, for example, even Tiger Woods was made to look like a weekend hacker.

“It was blowing so hard out there it was just difficult to stand,” said the American superstar after shooting a 10-over-par 81. “The ball was oscillating, the rain blowing, it was just tough.”

Taking honors overseas

Compared with this, Japan’s narrow, tree-lined courses seem a world removed. Sheltered from the elements, they are ideally suited for players who hit the ball straight and true and rely on accuracy. The power hitters, those who can fade or draw the ball, or those who tend to keep a low trajectory often find their game unsuited to Japan’s hilly courses.

Which is, of course, good news for the operators of the vast number of driving ranges in Japan, which offer the perfect environment for simply hitting the ball as straight as possible.

Isao Aoki was one of the first Japanese golfers to make an impression overseas. He won more than 50 tournaments in Japan, then became the first Japanese to take honors on the PGA Tour, when he won the Hawaiian Open in 1983. However, though he also went on to win both the European Open and Pacific Open, he never won a major.

Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki, the oldest of three golfing brothers, has won 90-plus domestic tournaments, but his chain-smoking, laid-back style (widely imitated by Japan’s male golfers) is not suited to overseas tournaments, and he has only won a couple of minor ones abroad.

Some have argued that the reason Japanese golfers have not succeeded on the world stage is because of their physique, which means they can’t compete with the big hitters. There may be some truth in this, but more important is the fact they are brought up playing on tight, narrow courses, and find it hard to adjust to courses overseas featuring quite different challenges and topography.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Japan’s two most successful golfers overseas based themselves in the United States.

Ayako Okamoto, Japan’s most successful female golfer, won 17 tournaments on the U.S. LPGA tour between 1981 and 1992, and in 1987 was honored as Player of the Year. Shigeki Maruyama, meanwhile, has won nine Japan PGA tournaments, but since 2000 the Nihon University graduate has concentrated on the U.S. tour. He is the first Japanese whose earnings on the PGA tour have topped $1 million, and to date he has two PGA victories to his name.

Such success stories owe a lot to the “Nakasone boom” of the 1980s, by the end of which Japan had around 2,400 courses covering three times the area of Tokyo. Back then in the bubble era, club membership fees soared to unreal levels and were often treated as investments. For instance, at Koganei Country Club in Tokyo (reputedly the world’s most expensive club), membership rocketed from 80 million yen to 400 million yen at the height of the bubble — though now it is said to be less than half that figure. Not surprisingly, many clubhouses were like five-star hotels, complete with armies of lackeys and Impressionist paintings snapped up as investments.

Just like the “Asian tiger” that was Japan Inc. back then, it seemed golf had the Midas touch. That love affair between golf and Japanese money culminated in 1990, with the $840 million purchase of the famed Pebble Beach golf club in California by the businessman Minoru Isutani.

But then, golf and business have long gone hand in hand, as celebrated U.S. sports writer Grantland Rice pointed out, saying: “Eighteen holes of match play will teach you more about your foe than 19 years of dealing with him across a desk.”

Though doing deals in the bar after a round may be a worldwide feature of golf, the Japanese took this to a new level with settai (business invitation) golf. More than simply a game punctuated with business talk, settai involved the bestowal of favors through paying for the game and meals and so on. No expense was spared and businessmen who did not play golf became almost outcast. Consequently, one of the most common — and comical — sights in 1980s Japan was of salarymen practicing their swings with an umbrella while waiting for a train.

As retired company executive Yasuto Suehiro recalls, when he was transferred to the head office of a major food producer in 1989, at age 50, “My new boss made it quite clear that I should take up golf. I had never played before but the firm had a company membership at a club and my name was added to that.”

However, bubbles are prone to bursting, and when Japan’s did in 1991 it presaged a continuing recession that has had a huge effect on the golf industry.

Golf-industry bad loans

First to go have been those golf-club lackeys, but 80 percent of Japan’s golf courses are now still in the red. Also, in the first 10 months of 2002, 84 operators went under, with a combined debt of 1.89 trillion yen, surpassing the record 53 failures in 2001.

“It is very difficult to calculate the extent of the bad-loan problem in this country,” said Takehito Sasaki, managing director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Japan. “Some people estimate it at $1.2 trillion, and maybe 20 percent of that is related to the golf industry. The problem could get worse, too.”

Indeed it could, because many of the club memberships bought during the bubble years included non-interest-bearing security deposits. Estimated to total some $95 billion — more than the gross domestic product of Ireland, Singapore or New Zealand — many of these are now maturing and members are demanding reimbursement . . . only to find the club incapable of paying up.

Around 15 years ago, for example, Mitsuko Fujii, 64, the deputy director of a golf school, paid 9.8 million yen ($90,740) for membership at the Nishikata Golf Club in Tochigi Prefecture. Today a membership can be had for around $300.

“I think the banks bear the most guilt,” she said. “There was always some credit company ready to lend money for memberships. They were allied with the golf courses, telling people that anyone can get a loan like this, and if you buy the membership the price will rise. So many people were tricked.” However no one’s loss tops that of Isutani, who ended up selling Pebble Beach for $500 million — a $340 million loss.

And yet Japan’s golf industry remains remarkably upbeat, its optimism fueled by an increase in playing numbers from sources that would have seemed improbable at bubble-era prices.

In 2000, in fact, the nation’s golf market was the world’s second-largest (behind America), with its 12 million golfers spending around $3.1 billion a year. But even though the average golfer was estimated to spend around $5,924 a year on the game, many only rarely ventured onto a course, instead spending hours at driving ranges known as uchippanashi (literally, “just hit it”).

Whereas other countries’ ranges are normally open fields, in Japan they are huge cagelike structures that often dominate city landscapes. With fully automated ball-return and uniformed attendants, these ranges typically charge 2,000 yen for 100 balls.

However, their very existence highlights a problem common to many Japanese sports — the golden rule of “practice makes perfect.” If a baseball pitcher starts to tire after 50 pitches in practice, he is forced to pitch 30 more. Similarly, rugby drills go on for four hours — and Japanese golfers may hit 300 balls in an afternoon.

The problem is that such practice has no connection to how a game is played in reality.

However, as golf-course prices plunged, it finally dawned on operators that there was a huge untapped pool of potential golfers in Japan just waiting to enjoy the relaxing side of the sport — and play on real grass. Consequently they have for several years been encouraging participation by women and children — a notion that would have been laughed at 10 years ago.

By 2000, the frequency of visits to a driving range had dropped (from 3.4 times a month to 3.1), whereas the number of rounds played had risen (from 22.9 a year to 25.3). A recent survey by Bridgestone Sports — a leading golf-equipment manufacturer — showed that while male golfers tended to play with colleagues and business associates, women in their 30s and 40s played with their husbands, and women in their 50s with female friends. Indeed, the latter are now golf’s highest spenders, averaging $8,000 a year.

With this widening of the golf demographic has come a booming market for secondhand clubs. Realizing this, in 1996 Choichi Yamazaki began franchising his Golf Partner operation, selling used equipment, and by 2000 there were 207 outlets.

Despite all this, however, golf is still expensive in Japan, with a round for a nonmember at a public course typically costing around 10,000 yen on weekdays and 30,000 yen on weekends. But here, a trip to the golf course is a whole experience involving the game, the lunch, the bath and beers — not forgetting your group’s prizes for longest drive, closest to the pin, best score, second-best score, booby prize and so on to ensure that no one leaves empty-handed.

Also, like any hobby in Japan, it is important to wear the right clothes — meaning designer-brand — and to mimic the professionals as much as possible. This involves a great deal of stretching before each drive and long consultations with caddies and fellow players about which club to use. All this reaches its climax on the greens. Not only is every ball marked after every putt, but putts are lined up and relined up as if the Open depended on it. The result is that the yen-per-minute price of golf in Japan is likely less than in many other countries, as it takes two or three times longer to complete a round.

As part of this new democratization of golf, and perhaps in response to younger people’s declining devotion to traditional ways of doing things (and shallower pockets), the more far-sighted golf course operators are now changing their traditional ways, too.

At the Minori Golf Club in Ibaraki Prefecture, for instance, golfers are now allowed to . . . wait for it . . . carry their own clubs.

“I would much rather use a cart or carry my own clubs,” said Suehiro. “When you play on a course overseas you don’t have to have a caddie and you can relax more.”

Suehiro’s nephew Jun, 26, is just one of the many younger Japanese to have taken up the game. Though he first picked up a golf club when he was at elementary school, it was another 12 years before he played on a course for the first time — and, like his uncle, father and brother, got the bug. Jun now works for a company that builds and maintains golf courses in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

“The great thing about golf is that it is a simple game,” he said. “Everyone can enjoy it.”

Jun and those like him are the future of golf in Japan. Their enthusiasm is infectious — and their cash invaluable to an industry that too long marketed itself on exclusivity. Japan’s golf courses, and perhaps its economy, better hope that newcomers continue to tee off in numbers.