CHIRAN, JAPAN - The Japanese affection for the game of golf has been well documented. Stories abound of how the Japanese are possessed by the game:
- The country’s businessmen bought up old chateaus outside Paris in the mid-80s, refurbished them and hired the likes of Jack Nicklaus to design championship courses on those properties just so they would have a place to play their favourite sport while on business trips to Europe.
- Once they hit their quota for golf courses in their own land-challenged country, the Japanese turned to places like Thailand, Hawaii and the continental U.S. to buy courses for “weekend” trips. Heck, they even bought California’s famed Pebble Beach.
- Entrance fees of $1 million U.S. were once the norm at private clubs in Japan.
- There was even suggestions that an employees’ golf score was once far more important than their IQ when it came time for being considered for promotion.
Golf in Japan was booming – until it went bust in the late ’90s. Thousands of courses were closed. Banks that staked billions in the golf industry went bankrupt. Many point to the misfortunes of golf for touching off the country’s still-lingering recession. That has not dulled the Japanese enthusiasm for the game, though. If anything, the financial problems with golf actually afforded more Japanese, especially women, the opportunity to play a sport once considered the private domain of rich businessmen.
Ito, a Japanese friend, is one of those women who now enjoy a game that rivals baseball as Japan’s national sport. A tourist official in Kagoshima, a handsome city featuring an active volcano located on the enchanting southern island of Khusyu, Ito even credits the downfall of golf in Japan for the upswing in tourism to her area.
“Because the private courses were forced to accept visitors to help pay down their debt, more tourists come here to play courses that were once restricted to members only,” Ito reported.
Golf crazy Koreans, who live just across the Straight of Japan from Kagoshima, have taken full advantage of the situation and venture here on holiday excursions to play championship layouts like the Chiran Golf and Country Club, Ito’s home course.
“Please, you must join me and my cousin Tom for a game tomorrow,” said Ito, ever the gracious host, when she discovered I too shared the Japanese affection for golf. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to see how the Japanese game differed from ours, I readily accepted.
Next morning, Ito and Tom, a rather tall man by Japanese standards, arrived at my hotel for the breathtakingly beautiful drive along coastal mountain roads to this small town made famous by two generations of Japanese warriors. Chiran is where you will find a perfectly preserved samurai village. Chiran is also the place from where Japan’s World War II kamikaze pilots launched their deadly one-way missions against American targets on nearby Okinawa.
As we neared the course, Ito told me that there are 32 clubs in her province and that most, including Chiran, are located at the base of volcanic mountains because land there is not suited for anything else. That’s a bonus for golfers, who are provided with some breathtakingly beautiful views thanks to the mountainous terrain.
At first glance, the clubhouse at Chiran was a bit disappointing – it looked like any stone-faced property you might find on this side of the great Pacific water hazard. That was before I saw the Jacuzzi, steam room and massage tables in the men’s locker room.
Suddenly, the differences between Japanese and North American golf were starring me right in the face. The Japanese like to play their golf in two stages – finish nine holes and then take a break for a huge lunch consisting of at least three courses and then retire to the comfort of the locker room for one of the abovementioned treatments. The food, by the way, was exceptional. After lunch, players then get a second tee time and complete the back nine – then return to the locker room for more treatments.
“Golf is an all-day affair for the Japanese,” said the lovely Ito. “We take full advantage of the club’s facilities.”
Visitors needn’t worry about lugging their own clubs all the way to Japan. Most pro shops, like the one at Chiran, offer up-to-date equipment that rivals anything you might find at a Glen Abbey-type facility here in Canada.
However, you might want to bring your own shoes. The size selection is limited here. And don’t forget to bring a hat. For some reason – and no one seemed to know why - wearing a golf cap is mandatory on Japanese courses – a rule probably instituted by a Japanese cap manufacturer. Thankfully, Tom had large feet and was able to supply me with one of his spare sets of shoes.
With my set of rented Big Berthas slung over my shoulder, I headed for the first tee. Not so fast, said Tom.
“We will be accompanied by a course pal today,” he told me. I thought he meant a friend would be joining our little group but a “pal” here is really a caddy – and they are all women. Yuko Ukibe, a shy slight young woman, suddenly appeared out of nowhere, bowed, and relieved me of my clubs, which she promptly placed on the front of what looked like a motor scooter. The Japanese golf scooter holds four sets of clubs at the front and the caddy stands on the back. There is also a five-seater golf cart for those who do not want to walk the course. The caddy costs $20 for the day and will not take a tip no matter how forceful you are to thank her for exceptional service, which Yuko provided us. They make PGA Tour caddies look sloppy – their “uniforms” are neatly pressed and they clean your clubs, rake your traps and fetch you refreshments after every hole.
One of the most amazing things about playing golf with a caddy here is to see them operate the scooters – from the greens. All the cart paths at Chrian were “wired” with sensors so Yuko simply had to touch a remote button on the back of her belt and the scooter automatically proceeded to the next tee while she was still fixing ball marks on the last hole. Amazing stuff, but what else would you expect from the electronically gifted Japanese.
Despite being a caddy for “about six months,” Yuko was exceptionally knowledgeable about the game and her club selection became invaluable during the round. She also would not tolerate tardiness on the course and kept reminding us, always with a smile, to keep up our pace of play.
The Chiran course was jaw-dropping gorgeous to look at and a delight to play – with as many challenging holes as you will find anywhere in North America. The 7,059-yard beauty is not the best course in the area, according to Tom, but it “has many beautiful holes.”
Among those were three of the first four (1-3-4) and the ninth, an amazing stretch of fairway boarded by water down the left side that reminded me of the 18th at legendary Sawgrass.
Walking the mountainous course was not as difficult as I thought it would be and in fact was made easier by the “people movers” that eliminated some steep climbs between holes 6 and 7 and 15 and 16. The people mover experience was made even more memorable when we played the course (last spring) because it took us through a canopy of cherry trees that were in full blossom. Beautiful!
Golf is still not cheap at Japanese courses. Tom reported that it costs about $50,000 U.S. to join a club of Chiran’s quality in this part of Japan – a far cry from the $100,000 U.S. he paid when he joined the cub in the late 70s. After paying their initiation, Japanese golfers are then required to pay the equivalent of $200 U.S. a year for club maintenance and then still pay $80 U.S. for every round. Let’s hope they never export that trend to Canada.
Visitors are more than welcome to play private courses, and clubs like Chiran charge about $100 U.S. for the privilege. And what a privilege it was.