Golf was introduced as early as the 15th century, when the Scottish used a wooden stick-like device to knock a pebble around a mecca of sand dunes and various tracks. While this was first conceived as a simple ‘stick and ball’ game, the vital ingredient was later added to create golf’s uniqueness: the hole. Or, if you buy Robin Williams’ version of events, a bunch of [expletive] drunk Scotsmen got together and decided to whack a [expletive] ball down a [expletive] gopher hole, and put loads of [expletive] trees and [expletive] sand in the way. Either way, in the hundreds of years that have passed since then, golf has remained relatively unchanged, save for the materials the equipment is created from.
But what about golf in our adopted home, Japan? It was in the 70’s that golf really began to take off here. The economy was booming, money was flowing, and the Japanese wanted a slice of the stick and ball action. Golf courses sprang up all over Japan, and most of them flaunted the kind of membership fees that needed extra long checks to write them on. We’re talking 3,000,000 yen joining fees plus 25,000,000 yen annual fees, and you still had to pay to play each round. These uber-courses were members-only affairs that relied on inflated corporate membership fees paid by companies’ expense accounts.
Nowadays, the golf industry is still feeling the pinch of the recession. Golf courses and country clubs, if they haven’t been bought by foreign-owned conglomerates and Americanized, have been forced to open their doors to non-members and attract new customers. Courses have begun to offer lower green fees, developed junior programs for golfers-to-be, and taken steps to welcome (shock!) women into the world of golf.
Now, over 30 million people all over the world enjoy golf as a prominent national sport. From amateur tournaments to international championships, players worldwide have become fascinated with everything about golf, from the lush greens to the multimillion dollar endorsements afforded to the very best players. Japan, with its power players (many of them women) and increasing market share, is a firm part of the world’s obsession with the sport. Not least, there’s Miyazato Ai from Okinawa, who has been playing since she was four and has her eye on the world number one spot.
The Japanese Golf Experience
Japan has a wonderful habit of borrowing things from other countries and thoroughly Japanerizing them. Golf is no exception. From strict tee times to luxury locker rooms and lunch in between, golf in Japan is not without its differences. But, some of these twists can make your round of golf even more enjoyable.
A typical day of golf in Japan usually starts the day before; tee time bookings are almost always essential, and some clubs won’t accept same-day bookings. Your tee time determines the order of play for the day – who is before you and who comes after. This order is also maintained after the lunch break, but we’ll get to that later. Turn up to the course before your scheduled tee time, to give you enough time to get started, and take advantage of the warm-up area where you can practice your putt or your swing. In many Western countries, there’s a Starter who helps to match singles with an odd-numbered group, for the sake of efficiency. In Japan, however, in line with the reserved culture, it is not as common to impose yourself on another group, or have someone forced to join your group.
Next, you’ll have to decide if you want a caddy, and what kind of cart you need. A caddy will serve as your assistant while you are playing, offering advice, tracking and collecting your ball, and generally ensuring your game goes smoothly. For this reason, often when first visiting a course, or playing with a business group, players take caddies. However, it is usually an extra cost, and if you know the course or are an experienced golfer, a caddy is not always essential. Carts in Japan can range from a simple, motorized cart to a GPS-enabled, remote controlled, possibly sentient golf-mobile. As you’d imagine, the price scales accordingly.
So, you’re playing golf. You swing. You miss- badly. You walk over to your ball, begin to swing again, and look up to see a group of golfers waving at you to keep it movin’. Huh? In Japan, missing your target doesn’t mean a penalty shot and another start where the ball landed. It’s zenshin yonda: heading to a designated spot up the fairway and playing as if it were your fourth shot. Efficient, these Japanese!
Why spoil a good walk?
What is it that drives seemingly sane men and women, to pick up a stick and hit a ball until it falls in a hole? And as Mark Twain said, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” So why do so many millions play it?
It’s good exercise in the fresh air (especially if you’re no good…)
The feeling of hitting a ball on the sweet spot and seeing it sail away…
You can play it until you’re old and gray
The beautiful nature of the courses
Like sex, you don’t have to be good to enjoy it
It’s a very social sport, good for networking
As prices drop, it’s becoming an affordable slice of luxury
You can learn new curse words
As a game, golf is very challenging, and very rewarding
Lunch, Etiquette and More
Then comes lunch. It is customary on a Japanese golf course to break for lunch. Many foreign golfers are used to scarfing down hot-dogs between holes, barely breaking stride, but here in Japan, it’s sticks down and off to the clubhouse. While you are not obliged to buy lunch, you are required to maintain the play order, so no swooping in before the salarymen have finished their refuelling.
Now you’re back on the course. If, at this point, you’re naked and attracting pitiful stares, it’s because you didn’t read this important section on what to wear. There are a few simple rules to remember when choosing your threads for the golf course. First, don’t wear jeans. Shorts are acceptable, in the hot summer, as long as they aren’t Rip Curl boardies. Golf shoes are still preferred by almost all clubs, but the kind with softer, plastic ridges, rather than lawnmower-esque metal-spiked grass-munchers. The old rule used to be ‘wear a collar’, but since the trendsetting megastars of golf, such as Tiger Woods, started wearing the neoprene / dri-fit / possibly sentient pseudo shirts, the line is less clear. If in doubt, wear something with a collar. If it cost a lot of money and is made by Nike Golf, it’s probably acceptable.
Take note of the instructions the club gives you for repairing any divots you may hack out of the ground. Some places will give you a bucket of seeded sand to fill your hole with; others will ask you to find your divot and pat it back into the hole. Generally, it’s considered poor form to leave a trail of destruction behind you on the course.
Courses in Japan tend to close earlier than elsewhere. Many believe this is because Japanese golfers enjoy the full day’s golfing experience. They like to play, stop for lunch, play some more, stop for a bath (which are, by the way, often grand affairs, and in the best courses, rival the best onsen in terms of luxury), and head to the clubhouse for dinner. So, for the keen non-member, it may feel as though courses are closing early. For now, this is just the way it’s done; however, some forward-thinking courses are offering later tee times, extended playing hours, and even night golf.
Get That Ball Rollin’ – Literally!
If you want to get started, you’ll need a basic set of clubs, some lessons, and somewhere to practice. You don’t need a full set of clubs to get started. “You only need 3 or 4 clubs to really get goin’ on the ranges,” Sambhavo Patrick, an avid Canadian player, says. “A driver, a couple of mid-irons, and a wedge. That’s it.” Clubs can be bought at secondhand shops throughout Fukuoka – and for as little as 100 yen/club! However, if you’re serious about starting, you can pick up a decent, full set for under 10,000 yen. “Most of them are in great condition,” Sambhavo says. “Just chucked out because some guy decided to buy a new set.” But left-handers beware! The chances of you finding these bargains are few and far between, so if you’re out of luck, don’t forget the major sport stores, most of which will carry a small selection of clubs just for you.
Is Golf Expensive?
Assuming that experienced golfers can play 18 holes in about five hours, and that it’s pretty easy to find a course offering 18 holes for 5,000 yen on a weekday, we can conclude that golf can be played for just 1,000 yen/hour. How does that compare to other activities?
Watching Toto in concert: 8,500 yen – around 4,250 yen/hr
Kabuki Theater: 20,000 yen – around 5,000 yen/hr
Private English lessons: 3,000 yen/hr
Thai Massage: 3,500 yen – around 2,300 yen/hr
Go-Carts: 1,500 yen for an 8-minute lap – around 11,250 yen/hr
Fukuoka is very fortunate to have someone like Jeff Jackson, PGA Professional Class A, around and available for golf lessons in English! Jeff is the General Manager out at the beautiful Yasukogen C.C. Call him at 0946-42-2211 or visit their site at www.yasukogen.com
Next, head for a driving range. Those giant nets you see strung up around the city aren’t for catching fish after a tsunami; they’re called uchippanashi, and are perfect places to practice your swing. More often than not, they have a professional player on site who offers lessons, at a price, and Japanese language ability is almost always required. Many ranges are also offering junior prices, so you can bring your kids along and get them started, too. Courses also have a professional golfer on site who can give private or group lessons, but again Japanese language ability is a must. Unless, of course, you head out to Yasukogen (0946 42-2211) where Class A PGA pro Jeff Jackson can give you lessons in perfect American!
If you want to get out on a course, it’s a good idea to search for, and check, the club’s homepage first. Most homepages are in Japanese only, but you’ll often find special offers and discount tee times that you’d otherwise be unaware of. It’s also recommended to visit the golf shops around town and pick up the free golfing magazines; these, too, often carry vouchers and special deals.
There are, of course, many other resources to improve your game far too numerous to mention – books, DVDs, the internet, substituting household objects for clubs… Head to www.pgatour.com as a place to start on the web, and flip the page for an even cheaper way to get going. You should also visit www.golf-in-japan.com for very useful and comprehensive information on golf in Japan, including detailed course lists and reviews by fellow golfers. Best of all, it’s in English!
– In Japan, if you score a hole-in-one, you are ‘required’ to buy everyone in your group expensive gifts. So…
– Japan is the only country in the world to offer hole-in-one insurance. With your monthly premiums, you’ll be covered should you ever hit that miracle shot.
– There are 336 dimples on a regulation golf ball.
– Golf is the only sport that has ever been played on the moon.
– Before 1850, golf balls were made of leather and were stuffed with feathers.
– In Japan, wild pigs that find their way to the green have become a major problem
– Fore! is thought to have been originated by the Scots military, playing golf on their off days and warning golfers in front of them by shouting “Fore!”, short for afore or before, meaning look out in front.
– The Voyager spacecraft safely arriving at Neptune was the equivalent of hitting a hole-in-one on a 3,630km golf course
Parlez vous Golfais?
Every country has its own golf lingo. Here are some essential words for golfing in Japan.
Betapin- When you hit a shot that lands close to the hole’s flag.
Wanpin- When your ball is the length of the flag away from the hole.
Kyoichi- The best shot of the day (usually used to describe a tee shot). Literally, ‘today number one’.
Ikepocha- When the ball lands in the water. Ike – pond, pocha – the unfortunate sound of your ball.
Zenshin Yonda (also ‘Play Four’)- Will come in handy for beginners. Describes when you hit a ball out of bounds from a tee shot, and play on from halfway down the course as if it were your fourth shot.
Fah!- The Japanese version of Fore! , to be shouted when you hit a ball that goes in the direction of other people. Remember to shout Fah! instead of Fore! (unless you were aiming at other foreigners).
Choro- A missed shot that rolls slowly along the floor. The Japanese equivalent of the pea-roller.
Naisu Sho- Nice shot… In Janglish.
Tempura- When a tee shot flies straight up in the air and back down again.
The Fukuoka Swingers Club
So, you’ve read the article, and you want to get out there and see what it’s all about. Or perhaps you’ve hit a few balls in your home country but have yet to venture out onto the Japanese greens. But who to go with? Here’s a suggestion. There’s a golfing group, with a selection of very friendly foreigners including Sambhavo Patryck, Justin Poores and Scott Newby, who love nothing more than to get out on the links one or two times a week. Why not hook up with them? Email Sambhavo at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re ‘carless’, he’ll even pick you up, for a small fee!
Here is just a small selection where you might just bump into the gang above, offering value, a bit of luxury, and good opportunities for beginners or the golfer on a budget.
Fuji Country Club (Minami – South Course)
Description: Excellent value, with a cart included. The course is relatively short, so good for beginners, occasional golfers or non power-hitters.
691 Kami-kumakawa, Fuji-machi, Saga-city
Open: 8:00 – , last tee off 13:00
Prices: Weekdays 9H 2,000 yen – , 18H 2,800 yen – / Sat., Sun. & Hol. 9H 2,500 yen – , 18H 4,500 yen –
* By reservation only / prices above are per person in a group of 4
Train: To JR Saga station, then 20 min. by taxi
Car: 8 min. drive from Nagasaki Expressway Saga Yamato IC
Otake Short Course
Description: A flat, brilliantly maintained course by the sea near Uminonakamichi, it offers a moderate challenge and good value. Walk the course and enjoy the views.
4-3-1 Otake, Higashi-ku, Fukuoka
Closed: January 2nd Wed. & April 2nd Monday
Open: 8:00 – 20:00 (July – Sept.: 6:00 – )
Prices: Weekdays 9H 2,415 yen, 18H 3,675 yen, night games 1,890, Sat., Sun. & Hol. 9H 3,255 yen, 18H 4,725 yen
Train: To Saitozaki Stn. (JR Kashii line)
Car: 30 min. drive from Koga IC / Urban expressway Kashiihama ramp
Kurate Country Club
Description: Challenging and moderately expensive, but offers the true Japanese golfing experience, complete with onsen. Great design, luxury and variety – even night golf!
1331 Yahiro, Kurate-machi, Kurate-gun, Fukuoka
Open: 8:00 – , last tee off 12:12, night golf from 4/1 – 17:00 start (weekdays)
Price: Weekdays 18H 8,650 yen / Sat., Sun. & Hol. 15,700 yen / Early morning, afternoon and night games 9H 3,000 yen, Sat., Sun. & Hol. 5,000 yen
Train: 25 min. taxi ride from Akama station (JR Kagoshima line)
Car: 8km from Wakamiya IC, 30 mins drive from Fukuoka IC
URL www2.ocn.ne.jp/ – kccnews/index1.htm