Detroit-born Bob White has been in love with golf since he picked up one of his father’s clubs at the age of 8. There were no kids’ size clubs in the late 1950s, he recalls. You just did the best you could with what you had.
So passionate is his enthusiasm for the game that he has developed a course for teaching English to Japanese golfers who want to feel comfortable when communicating with non-Japanese players on courses abroad or in Japan.
“I started thinking about Golf English years ago, but I’ve never known quite how to promote it before. With so many players here in Japan, and the number who travel abroad to play, it has to be a winner.”
Starting this month, White will start teaching a six-week course at a culture center in Yokohama. It runs from Aug. 23 to Sept. 27, with a seventh “Golf English class” being played on a course in Chiba.
White lives just down the coast in Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture — his home for over 22 years with wife Kazuyo.
It’s a comfortable terraced house, the entrance neatly stacked with doors, windows and carved wooden features rescued from the many traditional houses pulled down in the area in recent years. “Just too beautiful to throw away,” he says.
Inside, their affection for Thailand and Laos is more apparent than Japan or golf. “We travel there on a regular basis, because Kazuyo buys textiles and accessories, which she imports and sells in Kamakura. Often while she’s involved in business, I go mountain biking with buddies or play golf. Courses in Thailand are especially lovely and very reasonable. As for Laos, it’s coming along.”
How different to the grass pasture he learned to play on: a long thin field at the back of his home when growing up. “It was the perfect practice place, about 200 meters long and aiming to strike the side of the barn at the far end.” Also his father used to hit golf balls high with an 8 iron on the pasture, and his sons would catch them with baseball gloves. “This way we practiced two games in one.”
Far from wanting to be a professional golfer (“I was a good amateur but accepted my limitations”), his first goal in high school was to avoid the Vietnam War draft. He worked part-time in a friend’s father’s plumbing business, then went to a university when a student deferment was the only way to avoid being called up.
“Yeah,” he laughs. “I was a hippie, supposedly studying liberal arts but eventually doing plumbing full-time. I worked as a plumber for 12 years in Detroit, going into places and situations I’d never have gone otherwise.”
When a friend went to live on St. Thomas in the Caribbean, White hung out with him, and on his fourth visit ended up staying for a year. He worked as a plumber, learned how to sail and mixed with Europeans for the first time. “The same buddy then went to Hawaii via San Francisco, and I held onto his shirt tails. In Hawaii I maintained gardens, did plumbing, and golfed, paying just $20 to play as much and as long as I liked. It was heaven.”
It was when White got a job in the golf department at Honolulu International Country Club that he first met Japanese members, many of whom were famous in their own country as enka (ballad) singers, wrestlers, and baseball and film stars. “It was just before the beginning of the bubble era and I was constantly being thrown up against these rich guys.”
The funny thing was that even regular Japanese talked about living in mansions and palaces. “It blew me away. Japan had to be so wealthy. I just had to go, take a look. Imagine my horror when I learned that Japanese lived in a one-room mansion and then I realized a mansion was a condo, a palace just a name.”
It was a golfing friend of a Japanese juku (cram school) owner who got him a job teaching English in Utsunomiya, Tochigi Prefecture. White describes the juku owner as “a marvelous man,” an old soldier now in his 80s, who provided many stories and insights. “He told me how Japan got a lot of its oil during the war from Borneo. And how as the Americans advanced to the north, he was forced to teach kamikaze pilots how to fly, riding down runways on bicycles.”
Another golfing friend lent White his “besso” (summer villa) for six months in Zushi. “Mr Toyoshima, also in his 80s, was close to the actor brother (Yujiro Ishihara) of the governor of Tokyo (Shintaro Ishihara), and addicted to American and Western culture — unlike Mr. Saito in Utsunomiya, who was very happy to be Japanese and sing old war songs at karaoke.”
White taught for nine years at a high school for girls in Kamakura. He now teaches three days a week at a different girl’s school in Hiroo opposite the Jewish Synagogue and Jewish Center in Tokyo. “Another coincidence. I grew up in a very wonderful Jewish neighborhood in Detroit and for years was told I was culturally more Jewish than the Jews.”
He also teaches at Tsurumi University in Yokohama, specializing in dental English to Japanese students of dentistry. It’s very different, he says: a completely new world of terminology and vocabulary, requiring a lot of research and study.
He tells his students, for example, that the original toothpaste was made from peppermint, iris flowers and salt. Also, that it was the son of a Dr. Sheffield who got the idea for toothpaste in tubes after seeing artists squeeze paint out of (what would now be considered lethal) lead tubes in Paris.
White has put the same degree of effort and enthusiasm into preparing Golf English. One of the six lessons he teaches introduces the history of the game in Japan. “Most Japanese players have no idea the first course was created on Mount Rokko in Kobe in 1906, during the late-Meiji Era.”
Other lessons cover subjects such as golf etiquette, rules, basic conversation moving around the course, and things to talk about at the “19th hole,” the clubhouse at the end of the round.
White works hard to help Japanese golfers resolve what he terms “a situation within a complication.” For example, “where a player might fail in making a starting time (tee time). Wanting a starting time at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday, they should be prepared for three possible scenarios: they get the time they ask for; Saturday is full with no available starting times; or they should be ready to offer an alternative time that they would be willing to accept.”
The person they talk to on the phone might also use the words “tee time” instead of “starting time” and they might think, “Why is this person asking me what time I want to take tea?”
Another difficulty is the choice and pronunciation of words. “Japanese say ‘naisu shotto’ (katakana pronunciation), which no one understands. More common in the U.S. is good shot or nice shot with the proper pronunciation.
“Also they should be able to ask or respond if they or someone asks them ‘pull the flag, take the flag out, tend the pin’ which all mean the same thing.”
In addition, he brings English grammar, plurals, numbers and other points related to the game into his lessons. “Some people I play with or have taught have trouble with . . . there is/are bunker(s) . . . on the right/left . . . both sides of the green/fairway.”
As a supplement to the lessons, White introduces his students to simonmemo.com, which is the site of the small notebook that the pros use on TV when they are evaluating how to hit a shot. The notebooks are only sold to professionals and caddies and describe the design and layout of every hole on the course.
“Students also bring clubs and balls into the classroom and we use various pieces of furniture to try and create a golf course effect. We putt a ball around the room and get in some practice speaking the Golf English we have just studied.”
Of all the aspects of the game, White believes golf etiquette to be the most important and valuable. “I teach the value of good manners, and explain golf can lead to any number of fantastic jobs and career opportunities. One of the reasons Ryo Ishikawa has done so well and is so respected is that he’s incredibly polite.”
“Golf offers everything you need to succeed personally and professionally,” White continues. “Know why golf is so important in business, and not only in Japan? Companies are checking out how the person behaves, especially under pressure.”
He puts no pressure on his wife to play seriously, asking only that she bear with his passion for the game, support Golf English, accompany him on one round a year and to watch one tournament a year. To redress the balance, he helps with her business.
And though he would not mind living in Laos, she says no. Chiang Mai maybe but . . . “Basically we are perfectly happy where we are,” they say.