It is not exactly true that the only reason the Japanese are giving up the kimono is that you cannot swing a four-iron while wearing one. And it would be an exaggeration to say that the favorite dress in Malaya is Bermuda shorts because that's what the King wears every day when he goes out to his country club. But it is certainly a matter of fact that golf is influencing the Oriental mind as few things have done since Confucius first proclaimed his maxims 2,500 years ago—and pastel slacks in Tokyo and sport shorts in Kuala Lumpur are all a "part of it.
In Japan, businessmen by the dozens of thousands persecute themselves through endless hours of practice, in the knowledge that the golf course is the best place to catch a good customer. In Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Malayan politicians who once believed that only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the noonday sun now plod the fairways in hopes of bumping into the King or the prime minister. In Bangkok, Thai army officers just a couple of generations removed from the paddyfields are back in the rice looking for lost golf balls. In Hong Kong, Chinese merchants have clipped their mandarin fingernails to the quick to avoid punching holes in their soft, thin golf gloves. In short, golf has arrived in the Orient.
Nowhere has the arrival been such a smash hit as in Japan, where golf has attained the level of folk sport. As of the last five years, this game, which once attracted no more than a few thousand rich patricians and politicians, has captured the enthusiasm of more than 2 million people. In that same five years, the number of golf courses in Japan has jumped from 70 to more than 300—a rate of four new golf courses a month in a nation where arable land is as precious as water in the Sahara. Elsewhere in the Orient there are something like four times as many golfers as there were a dozen years ago, and there are three to four times as many courses. Yet what is truly conspicuous in the smaller nations is the enormous prestige of golf. In Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Hong Kong, a prince of business or politics needs his golf the way an automobile needs an engine. Within the past year, President Diosdado Macapagal of the Philippines was forced to take up the game because he was missing out on a lot of the important discussions whenever heads of state gathered to consider their mutual problems. The man who gave him his first set of clubs was Tunku Abdul Rahman, the ex-prime minister of Malaya and now the prime minister of the new federation of Malaysia as well—which only goes to show what a man can accomplish on a golf course.
Among the Japanese, golf is not so much a game as an addiction. A friendly little Tokyo golf date begins about dawn and ends when most sensible people would be sipping a demitasse, yawning and thinking of bed. The Japanese start out at daybreak in the faint hope that they will be able to reach the golf course before heavy traffic clogs the roads. With luck, there is a chance of wolfing down breakfast at one of the close-in golf clubs by 8:30 and teeing off by 9. The tee-off does not, however, result in a speedup—Japanese have made a ritual art out of slow play. Probably because they need to compensate for the headlong pace at which they conduct the rest of their activities, they move across a golf course like somnambulists. Every shot is preceded, by a number of precise, methodical practice swings. They pause frequently at charming little teahouses, strategically spotted around the course, where one of those paragons of femininity, a young Japanese girl, serves them refreshments along with a chilled and scented washcloth with which to mop their brows. They pause before playing each hole to study their scores and adjust their wagers, which are usually negotiated in terms of chocolate bars, although the Japanese loathe sweets. With any luck and not too many lost balls, they may sit down to lunch by one or 1:30 in the afternoon.
November 25, 1963
The morning round is a mere overture. Having gone to so much trouble to get to the golf course, the Japanese have no inclination to settle for a mere 18 holes. After lunch there is another round, usually with the bets doubled. Toward nightfall, the exhausted golfer trudges into the locker room, tosses his saturated clothes into a wicker basket and luxuriates in the most truly happy moment ol his day—the bath. A Japanese bath, properly administered, can make up for any hardship.
Golf and business are so tightly interwoven in Japan that, as one American resident puts it, "the average businessman golfer doesn't even see his club chits." That is to say, the club bill goes straight to the office bookkeeper. There is one prestigious club just outside Tokyo that will not accept a member unless he is either president or chairman of the board of a well-established firm. Yet once a man has joined a club—a preliminary to his golfing career that can cost him as much as $15,000—the actual playing of the game is no more expensive than in the U.S. A set of the best Japanese clubs—four woods, nine irons and a putter—can be had for well under $200. This last economy is not much appreciated, however. No Japanese golfer with any respect for his own status would want to be caught in public with a set of made-in-Japan sticks in his bag. It would be like going to a Madison Avenue lunch at "21" wearing a powder-blue suit. At the very least, one should own a set of imported Wilson, Spalding or MacGregor clubs. They will cost around $400 or $450, better than 33% above the U.S. price. If one wants to really put on the dog, he carries a set of Kenneth Smith clubs, for which he has paid $750. American visitors who arrive in Japan with a golf bag are often startled to find their regular luggage ignored by a customs agent who, instead, scrutinizes their golf equipment as if the shaft of. the sand wedge were packed with heroin. Golf-club smuggling has become a fine art among the Japanese because of the high duty on imported clubs.
Much, but not nearly enough, has been written about the girl caddies in Japan. Without question they are the best thing that has happened to the game since the invention of the hickory shaft. Like most of their countrywomen, they are sturdy of limb, smiling and intensely eager to please. Any golfer would be a clod to show his disagreeable side in the presence of such company—which may explain why the average Japanese golfer takes misfortune so cheerfully. You will often find him grinning happily after hitting several miserable shots in succession, though it should also be remembered that the Japanese smile in the face of great tragedy, such as the death of a loved one.
The competition for the services of these girl caddies is becoming more intense as the Japanese golf expansion continues. In order to lure the young ladies from their provincial homes—and still meet the competition of other careers available to them, such as nightclub hostess—the golf clubs are establishing comfortable dormitories for the girls and filling their off hours with instruction in such womanly arts as flower arranging, sewing and tea serving.
A king on the tee
In other parts of Asia, golf is largely a British legacy, and as such it blends a decent amount of restraint with Asian enthusiasm. At the Selangor Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, one finds the typical metamorphosis from a casual British recreation to an Asian preoccupation. A day of golf now begins by the dawn's early light at the Selangor Club, largely because the Malayans want to finish before the worst of the midday heat. While the last gray remnants of night are still hanging over the course, a black Cadillac limousine flying a small yellow ensign from the top purrs softly up to the clubhouse, and a husky little man bounds friskily out of the car. He is Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the elected king of Malaya. Moments later, a black Chrysler limousine with a personal standard flapping from the left fender deposits a tall, bespectacled and almost elderly man. This is the Tunku. Lesser officials, such as the deputy prime minister, other cabinet ministers and ambassadors park their own Cadillacs, Rollses and Mercedes-Benzes in the parking lot. In a matter of minutes the Selangor Club is overflowing with important political and business figures, all dressed in shorts, chattering amiably and ready for the first tee.
On the day of a tournament such as the Captain's Cup, both of Selangor's 18-hole courses are alive with golfers as early as 7:30. To avoid any sticky matters of protocol, the King's foursome tees off first at one course and the Tunku's at the other.
Although they want to win as much as any Miami Beach hustler, the Malayans feign a kind of casual detachment, something they doubtless learned from the British. "I'm playing against the King this morning," said the Selangor Club president with a smile recently. "He's my enemy."
With the exception of the King, who is a competent left-hander playing to a 14 handicap, most of these men are new to golf and show it. The craze did not begin in earnest in Malaya until 1959, when the Tunku discovered the charms of the game during a visit to New Zealand and started hacking away soon after his return to K.L. The customary British club restrictions against Asian members had long since been lifted at Selangor. The more affluent members of Malayan, Indian and Chinese society joined the club by the hundreds. Before long the seldom-used polo field had to be converted into an additional 18-hole course to accommodate this crush of new golfers.
The seventh son of the Sultan of Kedah's sixth wife, the Tunku grew up in the British tradition, including a Cambridge education. In his younger days he was considered something of a playboy, taking 25 years to complete his law studies, captaining the Kedah state soccer team and becoming a first-class tennis player. But in time he abandoned this casual life and entered politics, eventually heading up the United Malay Nationalist party, which controled the Malayan House of Representatives. Now, at the age of 61, the Tunku is at the pinnacle of political power and prestige, a kindly father image who enjoys tremendous personal popularity. When he took up golf he gave the game the same kind of impetus in Malaya that Dwight Eisenhower gave it in the U.S.
"I used to despise golf," the Tunku explained recently. "Now the game despises me. But I like the friendliness of the game, the sociability. It makes it possible to get a couple of hours of not-too-strenuous exercise with your friends. You can even talk business, if it's not too serious business."
In deference to his years and station, the Tunku is allowed to use one of the only two golf carts in Asia. (The other, which was shipped to Japan for the visit that President Eisenhower canceled in 1960, now sits idle and forgotten in some warehouse.) When the Tunku plays, a caddie walks beside him for the first few holes, carrying a set of U.S.-made MacGregor clubs, but as the Tunku tires he drives the rest of the way in his cart and uses Australian-made Slazenger clubs, which are permanently installed on a shelf in the back. "I sometimes get mixed up and forget which clubs I'm using," the Tunku says with a big grin, but so far no one has had the temerity to challenge the prime minister on this absent-minded violation of the Rules of Golf.
The King of Malaya takes his golf a good deal more seriously than the Tunku, frequently playing in both the early morning and the late afternoon, whereas once a day is enough for the prime minister. Like everyone else in Malaya, the King would not think of playing without a fairly hefty bet on the match, always expressed in chits for golf balls, which cost about 50¢ apiece. When he has accumulated sufficient chits, the King will spend them in the Selangor golf shop, buying golf clubs for friends or numerous sets of cut-down and junior-size clubs for the 13 children in his family.
On an average day as many as 300 rounds of golf will be played on Selangor's two courses—all of which threatens to make a rich man out of Len Boozer, the new Australian pro at the club. It is not just that his teaching hours and those of his young Australian assistant are filled from dawn to dusk; his big bonanza comes from the sale of equipment. Selangor members, particularly the wealthier Chinese, cannot resist buying new clubs, and Boozer considers it a slow day when he does not sell at least four or five sets.
"It has something to do with the disposition of the golfers here," Boozer explains. "You'll never see one of our members throw a club when they play badly, but they never believe a bad shot is their own fault. They're never wrong; it's the clubs that are wrong. Some of these people will buy three or four new sets of clubs a year."
The fresh passion that is lavished on golf at K.L. is also the rule in such other Asian cities as Singapore, Manila, Bangkok and Hong Kong, although, quite naturally, each place has its own engaging eccentricities. At the Royal Bangkok Sports Club the golf course meanders through the infield of the racetrack and occasionally crosses the racing strip itself, but golfers get used to the pounding hoofs and the roar of the punters. Like the rest of Bangkok, the golf course is laced with drainage canals called klongs, so every foursome hires a klong caddie or two to dive after balls that fall in the water. At the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club at Fanling, newcomers are sometimes distracted by herds of grazing cattle, since the club rents out the rough as pastureland.
Except for the two major courses at Singapore—the Royal Singapore and The Royal Island, where playing conditions and amenities are comparable to those at the better British and American clubs—Asian golf requires some abrupt adjustments for the Western golfer. The only grass that seems to thrive there has a tough, almost rubbery texture, and after a few years it develops a matty thickness. No matter how well a course may be groomed—and some of those in Japan, like the new 300 Club, are the best-kept courses in the world—the fairways and greens do not lend themselves to the type of shot Americans consider the best. The ball sits up on the Asian grass as if it were a tuft of cotton, but the crisply struck iron shot tends to fly the ball, losing the backspin produced by having firm ground below. The greens, no matter how perfectly mowed, have a crusty quality, giving the ball too much speed when it is moving rapidly and then bringing it up short when it slows down. Pitching to these greens is yet another problem, for they refuse to grip the ball properly even when the shot has plenty of backspin.
It is, of course, too soon for all this Asian enthusiasm to have produced a generation of promising Oriental players, and it is still questionable whether such a generation will ever materialize. It is not a game that is ideally suited to the Oriental physique, with its relatively short arms and legs and small hands. One can scarcely foresee an Oriental powering the ball with the force of a Nicklaus or a Souchak. Yet there are those, including Cyril Horne, the pro at Royal Singapore, who insist that the next generation of Asians will be challenging the best golfers the West can produce at such major tournaments as the Masters and U.S. Open.
"They'll never swing a club with the big, powerful arc of some of your Americans," says Home, himself a stocky little Yorkshireman, "but they make up for it in wrist snap. With a well-developed wrist snap you can get as much club-head speed as you can with that big American pivot, and you won't get the back trouble, either.
"As for the short game," Home goes on, "the Asians have it all over the Westerners because they have so much more patience. They'll practice pitching and chipping and putting long after your Englishman or American gets so bored he can't stand the sight of a golf club. I tell you, you give these people another generation, enough time for the young ones to grow up with golf clubs in their hands, and you will have a world champion coming out of this part of the world. I can see it even now. These Asians love the game."