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Golf group puts spontaneous socializing back into game

by Edan Corkill

Most Japanese golfers would probably agree with Tor Dahlstrom, a Norwegian diplomat and longtime Japan resident, when he says that “golf is a social game.” They might disagree, however, on the way that golf is social.

“In Europe,” explained Dahlstrom, who has a handicap of 21, “you can just phone a club and say, ‘I’d like to play a round this afternoon.’ They place you with a group of players and you end up meeting lots of new people.”

In Japan, he continued, the style is different. “First you have to form a group of four players, then you have to call and book — and you have to do all that a long time in advance.” For the Japanese golfer, it turns out, the social aspect of the game isn’t about meeting new people as much as it is about having fun with existing friends.

The attraction of Gaijin Golfers, a predominantly ex-pat group of golf enthusiasts launched last summer by Grant Prentice, a 35-year-old Scot, is that it makes the European (or Western) style of golf possible in Japan.

At the conclusion of a recent Gaijin Golfers outing, which attracted 22 players to the Windsor Park Golf and Country Club in Ibaraki Prefecture, Dahlstrom smiled as he surveyed a room of mostly new friends. “This group is really a beautiful thing. I think Grant is doing really great work,” he announced.

It should be noted that Dahlstrom’s good humor was due in part to the fact that he had just been awarded a furry gopher golf club cover — the prize for coming fourth in the day’s competition (Dahlstrom got 33 points in the day’s handicap-adjusted competition). The gopher, organizer Prentice explained, is the Gaijin Golfers’ mascot.

For a group less than a year old and run largely on a volunteer basis (membership is free), Gaijin Golfers is surprisingly advanced. Not only does it have a mascot, but it also has a sophisticated Web site that facilitates for its members chatting, calculating handicaps, analyzing swings via video and most importantly, getting together to play golf.

Prentice, who has lived in Japan for 10 years and has a golf handicap of 12, explained why he decided to make the group. “A year ago one of my good golfing friends had a kid and another moved up to Hokkaido. All of a sudden I was struggling to find people to play golf with,” he said.

Prentice started attending competitions at the Windsor Park course, and noticed many foreigners playing by themselves or in small groups of two.

“I thought why not try to go out and do something together — get a little more organized,” he said. Three months after setting up a group on Google, Prentice had about 100 members. Since launching the current Web site in December, that number has shot up to 450.

Prentice explained that his members hail from over 20 countries — including Japan. “We are open to English-speaking Japanese,” Prentice explained — before admitting that he put gaijin in the group’s name because he “couldn’t think of anything else.”

Speaking to the participants at the recent event, it became clear that Gaijin Golfers is providing a much needed service. While Dahlstrom liked the fact that he could meet new people, for others, Prentice’s group was a practical necessity.

“If you don’t speak Japanese it is difficult to organize a game of golf here,” explained Kent, a 33-year-old Australian employee of a large hotel chain. “In Australia, or even Hong Kong or mainland China, you can just turn up at the golf course and get placed with a group. You can’t do that here,” the 16-handicapper said.

Len, a 30-year-old New Zealander who works for a headhunting firm, explained that he once tried the “Western approach” of calling a Japanese course and asking to be placed with a group. “When I got to the tee the other (Japanese) players looked at me and were like ‘Who is this guy?’ You know, look of fear on their faces,” he said with a laugh. “I guess they’re nervous thinking they had to speak English or whatever.”

Once signed up, Gaijin Golfers members are presented with an average of about four golf outings each month — on weekdays or weekends, some competitions with prizes, others just casual. Put your name down on the list and all that’s left to do is turn up on the day.

Prentice explained that while any member can organize a golf outing, he tends to do most of the legwork himself.

Most members live around Tokyo, so that’s where most events take place. “There are a few golf courses that are foreigner-friendly — with English Web sites and English-speaking staff,” said Prentice.

In addition to Windsor Park in Ibaraki Prefecture, popular Gaijin Golfers haunts include Harunanomori in Gunma Prefecture and Gotemba Golf Club and Belle View Nagao Golf Club in Shizuoka Prefecture.

One of the biggest differences between golf in Japan and in the West is that in Japan there is a compulsory hourlong lunch break after the first nine holes. While eating, Len, Kent and Dahlstrom discussed what made Japanese golf different from their experiences back home.

“The lunch break,” Kent said. The consensus was that the break disturbed one’s rhythm. “If you’re on a roll, you’re off it pretty quickly,” Kent chuckled.

Green fees were of course the biggest difference. (With a slight discount the Gaijin Golfers each paid ¥13,000 for their round at Windsor Park, and ¥3,000 less if they had forked out the ¥30,000 annual fee for membership of the club.)

“It’s hard to justify to my wife hiring a car, paying for gas, expressway tolls, the golf, drinks and stuff, when she’s been home with the kid all day and I’ve been out spending ¥30,000, you know! It’s kind of a luxury!” said Len. The 21-handicapper restricts himself to one round a month.

Head Gaijin Golfer Prentice conceded green fees are “probably the chief frustration among the foreign golfing community.”

With the success of Gaijin Golfers, it seems the other frustrations of language barrier and limited social interaction are quickly being forgotten.