Saturday, 16 March 2013

Teeing Off in Japan

The Japanese fascination for golf has long been recognized worldwide. I well remember the push in Australia during the 80’s and 90’s to build top class golf courses with the aim of attracting well-heeled golfing tourists from Japan, who at the time were riding high on the wave of a ‘bubble’ economy. While the bubble has now well and truly burst, the country’s passion for golf certainly has not and has continued to develop into a healthy 17 billion dollar a year industry.

Once considered to be a pastime of older businessmen, in more recent years its growth has been largely due to surging interest from the young and in particular women. Inspired by the international success of professionals Ai Miyazato and Ryo Ishikawa, golf is now considered to be somewhat ‘cool’, which has over time forced the golf industry to re-think its economic strategy with the aim of making it more accessible to the youth market. This week I had the opportunity to experience Japans golfing resurgence first hand when I was invited to accompany a group of students to a local golf club to experience, what would be for most, their first taste of the game.

Of course, such a visit to the traditionally exclusive domain of the golf club would require a day of preparation. This would encompass the essentials of golf etiquette as well as basics of the golf swing. Fortunately, developing the perfect stroke is something that can be practiced at one of the many local driving ranges to be found throughout the suburbs. Such places are easily identified by their tall steel pylons that suspend heavy-duty nets aimed at preventing golf balls from pummeling local residents. They are actually pretty ugly structures, but like many other visually jarring features of Japan, they are happily accepted as part of the big city environment. During the day and at night under floodlights, golf balls are continuously fired from these multi-leveled platforms in an attempt to develop the perfect swing.

I can quite understand the appeal of such places, as each ‘station’ is provided with a nice comfortable chair and a fresh piece of evergreen ‘astro-turf’ from which a new golf ball automatically pops up for you to hit into oblivion. With an endless supply of balls and being able to avoid continuously bending down, it is all very agreeable. In fact, with most people deep in silent concentration and just the continuous ‘pinging’ sound of golf balls hitting titanium drivers, it can be downright meditative! Each station is provided with a numbering system to check how many balls you have hit, so after hitting around 250 balls each we all felt suitably prepared to tackle the real thing.

With just a little soreness in our shoulders from the previous day, we set out of Osaka for the two-hour drive to the Lake Forest Resort north east of Nara. Upon our arrival and with the formal welcome over, our clubs were whisked away on a motorised conveyer belt to be loaded onto golf carts ready for our round. As we waited for our tee-off time, there was an opportunity to admire the course layout and to be honest, I was initially surprised with what I saw! While the putting greens and fairways were immaculate, the rough appeared be tinderbox dry (much like you would see during an Australian summer) despite being the middle of winter. However as I learnt, this is quite common throughout the country, as here they prefer to use a strain of grass that goes dormant in winter and remains lush and green in summer. Despite its apparent dryness, it was still a picturesque sight, set against a rugged mountain range, featuring water features and the type of selectively positioned boulders that you might see in a traditional Japanese garden. The course appeared to be very large and this was confirmed when I picked up my scorecard. Instead of the usual 18 holes, there were actually 27, consisting of three 9-hole courses. This was a very sensible idea, as regular players could easily mix and match whatever combination they preferred to make up their 18 holes.

Although the sun was shining, icy winds had begun to drift across from the nearby mountains by the time we were called over to begin. With all players being required to drive golf carts around the course, the scene around the tee itself was reminiscent of a Formula-One pit stop, with a uniformed team of attendants loading and unloading clubs with the speed of a race day fuel and tyre change. As we headed along the neatly paved roadway to the first tee, it soon became obvious why carts were an absolute necessity. With the steep slopes, the course appeared physically demanding for both experienced and novice players. Indeed, despite the increasing numbers of younger people who appear to be taking up the game, it is clear that the vast majority of mid week players were still retirees and older businessmen for which driving around a course like this was clearly the only option.

As anticipated, the fairways and greens were beautifully maintained, yet there still remained plenty of bunkers, water hazards and deep mountain gullies to swallow up any wayward shots … there were plenty of those! By the end of the round, the cold conditions and demanding layout had certainly provided us all with a tough challenge and we were more than happy to eventually drive our carts back to the pits. Here our clubs were again quickly whisked away to be cleaned and secured in a locker in preparation for our departure. It was all very efficient, but no more than I have come to expect while living in this country. While I have played golf over many years, my first experience in this country was certainly quite unique. Hopefully the students that we introduced to the game had also thought the same, as I’m sure they will be more than welcomed into the sub-culture that is 'Japanese golf'!

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