It was an internship gig back in 2001 that put Andrew on his first-ever airplane ride and brought him to Japan. He’d studied to be a greenkeeper, but had no idea that one day he’d become the only non-Japanese greenskeeper in all of Japan, managing a team of over twenty staff. Rain, sun, sleet, or snow, Andrew and his team work constantly to keep the course at Keya Golf Club pristine and challenging to play. Read our interview to learn more about Andrew’s unique job and envious environment in Itoshima.
Profile: Golf Course Superintendent, Nationality: American. In Japan: 18 years
Tell me a bit about your job.
I am a golf course superintendent and my main job is to take care of the golf course. In Japan, we call that a greenskeeper, but in the US, you might refer to it as a golf course superintendent. My main responsibility is to take care of everything that is outside and surrounding the golf course: all the turf areas, all the flowerbeds, all the tree areas. We’ve grown trees, we’ve cut trees, we’ve planted trees. There’s irrigation out there that we have to maintain. We do any construction needed on the golf course: we go out there and dig holes, dig bunkers. We’re in charge of pretty much everything that maintains the golf course.
What does a regular day look like for you?
We don’t have any major projects going on, but I usually come into the office at about six am because we have to do as much as possible before the golfers get going. Once the golfers are out there, there is not much that we can do. We start mowing greens at six o’clock in the morning, cut the cups for the golfers because we have to change the cup from the greens, and move the T-markers around. Moving the T-markers is mainly just to reduce the traffic in certain areas: we have to spread the traffic out throughout the golf course because if the golfers played on the same spot every day, we’d lose grass there. So, we set the course every day and cut greens. That takes about three to four hours and then we come back in and have a break. There are so many things to do on the golf course; it’s a never ending job.
How many people are on your team?
We have 14 full-time guys and six ladies that work year around. And in summer, we have five or six part-time guys as well. In summer, the grass grows faster so we are busier. They help us prepare the golf course. So, in the peak season, we will have around 25-26 staff walking around.
You’re from the United States?
Yes, I am from Alabama.
Are all the other staff Japanese?
They are, but now we have a new part-timer that is an Australian. But, for the most part, the workers are Japanese.
What is it like to be the manager of so many Japanese staff?
I’ve been in Japan for 18 years now so I have gone through the ups and downs of moving to a new place and figuring out how to work with the guys. But, Japanese people are mostly easy to work with if you are flexible and don’t just go out there and try to tell them what to do right out of the doorway. I think that as a foreigner you can get away with a lot of things that a younger Japanese person wouldn’t be able to do. I came in here as a 35-year-old running this crew which a 35-year-old Japanese guy probably wouldn’t be able to do. Maybe they respect where I come from and that I have an educational background in Turf Grass.
Are there many foreign greenskeepers in Japan?
I am currently the only overseas foreigner in Japan that is a greenskeeper. There are two on the American military bases, but that is kind of different. So, out of 2,000 golf courses, I am the only foreigner that I know of.
How did that come about? Why did you decide to work in Japan as a greenskeeper?
It was more like Japan found me instead of I went looking for Japan. I studied Turf Grass in university and we had to do internships while studying. I had already completed two internships, but my buddy told me that there was an internship in Japan where you would get your airfare and work paid for. I wanted to try it out, but I had never been on an airplane before so this was a big opportunity for me. So, we signed up for it and got interviewed. My buddy backed out, but I got hired and came over for three months. That was back in the summer of 2001. I worked for three months here and then went back in December 2001 to finish school. After graduation, the Japanese company called me and asked me if I wanted to come back and work and nothing was holding me back. So, I thought I would go to Japan for a couple of years and then come back to “real life” in Alabama. And one thing led to another. Once you get a grasp of the language and the culture and working with the guys, it just gets easier and easier.
What is unique about Japanese golf?
In general, golf is golf, but as far as the way golf is played in Japan, it’s quite different from anywhere else in the world. For one thing, it’s pretty much an all day event in Japan. Generally, golf courses are about a 45-minute to an hour drive away for golfers because they are coming from the city. They get to the golf course early, have a coffee, and hit some golf balls. After they play nine holes, they take a break and have lunch. And then they go out and play the next nine holes, have a bath, a beer or a coffee, and then go home. So, you’re looking at a six to seven hour day to play golf. But, in the US, you just go and play 18 holes in four or five hours and then go home.
Are there also differences between Japanese golf courses and those elsewhere in the world?
Japanese people are more peculiar about their expectations of a golf course. In the US, they are more concerned about the playability of the golf course, whereas Japanese golfers just want something beautiful to look at. So, it has to be really clean and tidy whereas in the US, you can cut corners because people are not so focused on the aesthetics. Another thing is that the Japanese golf courses have a two green system. In other words, the golf course actually has two greens that you can play on. Today, you might play on the right side green while tomorrow you might play on the left side green. This is something you won’t find anywhere else in the world. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think this is especially because in the early days of golf courses in Japan, they didn’t have the confidence to maintain one green. So, it was almost like insurance: they could change the green where the golfers were playing if problems came up. But recently, there have been some courses where they have merged the two greens into one, like in the US.
What are the biggest challenges you face in your job?
For me, growing the grass is easy. I think that the biggest challenge is getting the work done with the resources available and keeping the guys motivated to keep pushing and raise the bar up. But, I think that is true pretty much anywhere when you’re talking about a physical job. You are out there everyday working on the golf course; it’s not just like sitting in an office! You have to work hard, whether it’s raining or snowing or 40 degrees out there. So, I always try to get my team pumped up.
Are there any professionals or celebrities who play at this course?
Yes, (the pro golfer) Ishikawa Ryo; he is pretty big. We have the Softbank Hawks who come and play all the time too and some sumo wrestlers. But, there are also people that I don’t even know about who are famous. Keya is one of the golf courses that you would want to play if you are in Fukuoka.
Are there any opportunities for foreigners who want to work in the golf industry in Japan?
The sky’s the limit here, to tell you the truth. But, I got lucky when I came over because the golf course owners who hired me were willing to handle the language barrier. I couldn’t speak Japanese then, which is really the only thing that keeps foreigners from working at golf courses in Japan; not many people want to deal with it. So, in my case, the owners just told me directly that the grass can’t talk and all I had to do was maintain the grass. I was always thankful for that. They gave me the time to learn my Japanese language. But, I had studied Turf Grass in the States which gave me an advantage since there is no education focused on turf grass in Japan. So, here, any foreigner with an educational background in turf grass or with agricultural knowledge who knows a little bit about golf or has the eagerness to learn can do it. But, then again, you have to learn the language to make it more comfortable for the golfers and coworkers. Actually, recently, I’ve had inquiries from a couple of foreigners who want to work in the future for our crew. They want to work in Japan. So, I told them the door is wide open: they just have to come here, work with the crew, learn the language, and then we can try to find work for them elsewhere. I want to open the door for them to get things going.
And, honestly, the job is fun; everyday it changes. You get to work outside. And Itoshima is an unbelievable place. All of my foreign friends come out here and they wonder why everybody doesn’t just live out here!
Rapid Fire Questions:
What do you love about Fukuoka?
I love how compact it is. It’s got the mountains, the beach, the city. All right together.
If you were the mayor of Fukuoka for just one day and you could do anything to improve the city, what would that be?
I would move Itoshima closer to Fukuoka.
What’s your favorite Japanese word?
I’d have to go with Shoganai or Maa ikka.
Name some Japanese people you admire
I’d have to go with Ichiro; you gotta admire somebody that has gone over the States and done what he has done in baseball.
How long do you plan to live in Japan?
I have no plans of moving so a pretty long time from here on.
What does Fukuoka’s international community need more of?
I’d have to say just getting together more often, being able to share ideas and what we’re doing here and how we can help each other out more.
Do you have any advice for foreigners who are willing to settle down here in Fukuoka?
Just take the job- it’s a great place to live. Japan is great all over, but I’d have to say Fukuoka is one of the best places to live, so just come on!
Has living in Japan changed you in any way?
By all means, it’s changed me in so many ways that we’d have to sit down over a few beers to talk about that.
Any advice for foreigners that want to move to Japan?
I’d have to say brush up on your Japanese before you come; it’d make things a lot smoother, like getting around.
What are you good at that most people don’t know about?
I’m the best at ironing clothes, more than anybody could ever imagine. You gotta be very slow and very patient and diligent with it.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn256, Apr 2020)