A domed club that will test the god of golf

The Canada Cup matches are being held at Yomiuri Country Club near Tokyo, where the Japanese, who have deified Arnold Palmer, will see him and the rest of the world's best play one of their finest courses
November 07, 1966

The enormous geodesic dome at right adorns a hilly piece of land on the outskirts of Tokyo, looking like a late-model UFO or a brobdingnagian mushroom. The latter impression is not irrelevant, for the building serves, in a sense, as a monument to golfu, a game that is mushrooming in a startling way throughout the islands of Japan.

For the past decade golf has been Japan's fastest-growing sport. Ten years ago there were fewer than 40 courses and 90,000 players, but today there are 458 courses and something like three million active players. What was once the preserve of princes now belongs to the sarari man (the salaried worker). Other Japanese hardly lock up anymore when one of their countrymen standing in a bus queue or riding an elevator begins to twist and squirm, weave and rotate. Everyone knows he is just rehearsing the odd convulsions of his golf swing. Taking advantage of this, one Japanese entrepreneur made a minor fortune by fashioning an umbrella handle into the shape of a golf-club grip, thus giving workbound golf enthusiasts something they could really practice with.

From dawn until well into the late hours of the evening, there are mob scenes at the nation's 600 driving ranges, several of them three decks high and accommodating 300 people at a time. Some of the golfu kichigai (golf nuts) carry a club to work with them, hoping to steal a few minutes' practice at a nearby range during the morning and afternoon coffee breaks or lunch hour. Even geisha girls and bar hostesses have been affected by the shift in sporting interest. Numbers of them have learned the game, and are available to fill out foursomes for relaxing Japanese businessmen.

Next week a considerable quantity of this new Japanese enthusiasm will be centered on and around the dome of the 4-year-old Yomiuri Country Club. Yomiuri is the site of this year's Canada Cup matches, which feature the two leading professionals from 36 countries around the world. As with just about everything else involving Japanese golf, the Yomiuri course and its clubhouse are both new and startling to Western eyes. The clubhouse is the creation of R. Buckminster Fuller, daddy of geodesic-dome construction. It took nearly six years to build, cost $400,000 and is formed of 585 octahedral units of translucent polyester glass fiber, with no beams or pillars supporting the ceiling or dividing the cavernous space beneath. The dome is 62 feet high at its apex and 164 feet across. Inside, there is a Japanese garden with two waterfalls, the traditional wooden bridges and delicate arrangements of azalea, camellias, miniature pines and other flora, all of which create the impression of being within a large greenhouse. The garden, the decorators point out, includes "two mountains, one of rugged contour [male mountain] and the other of soft contour [female mountain]." A Japanese teahouse is at the edge of a pond and a dining room looks out over the 18th green, while such functional necessities as office and kitchen are fastidiously hidden by walls of greenery. Architecturally, the Yomiuri Star Dome, as it is called, is a phenomenon of modern times; esthetically, it rivals nature.

Adjoining the dome is a glass-and-concrete building containing such facilities as the golf shop and locker rooms, and beyond that a sort of junior dome encasing a community bath. There the weary golfer can soak and soothe his nerves while taking in a magnificent view of Mt. Fujiyama. (Despite all this, Yomiuri is by no means the best club or the best course in Japan. As with all Japanese private golf clubs, its members are allowed to sell their memberships on the open market. Yomiuri memberships go for about $4,000, while those for some other clubs sell for as high as $10,000, this in an economy where the average monthly income is $180.)

Such extravagant accessories as those at Yomiuri are an integral part of Japanese golf, where form is on a par with substance. That, in itself, may help to explain the epidemic proportions the sport has attained in Japan. Golf is a game that lends itself to ceremony and ritual. The Japanese appreciate and cultivate such amenities to ease the strain of life on their crowded islands.

For instance, a one-day golf outing is considered to be ideal entertainment for a group of Japanese businessmen. And what a day it is—something in the nature of 15 hours, portal to portal, for the Tokyo executive. First there is a homicidal ride through Tokyo's dawn traffic to make a 9 a.m. tee-off. Then the slow progress around the course, often a matter of five hours, for the quality of Japan's golf has not yet caught up with the hazards imposed by its advanced golf architecture. There is a brief stop for lunch, followed by 18 more holes in the afternoon, a program that often leaves any foreign visitor more intent on survival than success. The strain is sometimes even too much for the sturdy Japanese; unusual numbers of them are carted off courses suffering from sunstroke and heat exhaustion.

It is not, however, until this physical ordeal is completed that the most delightful contributions of the Japanese to golf become evident. Having shed his wilted clothes in the locker room, the golfer takes himself a long and languid bath in a comforting community tub that is the size of a small swimming pool.

Then he dresses for the evening and repairs to the club terrace, where the social dividends of the game ensue. He consumes exotic drinks—peach-flavored daiquiris are a favorite—and eats and talks business and golf with his companions. For a finale, there are awards for the day's play. These tend to include both trophies and expensive gifts, some of the latter no doubt planned to help mollify Japan's new golf widows. But the favorite gift of all is a set of U.S. golf clubs. Import duties have raised the prices on U.S. clubs to three times what they are in America, while perfectly good Japanese clubs sell for as low as $50 a set. But nothing can rival the prestige of owning U.S. golf equipment. This is so well known that Japanese customs officials inspect U.S. tourists' golf clubs more carefully than their luggage, and if you take a new set of clubs into the country you would do well to bring it out again.

Intensity is the word to describe what the Japanese have brought to this once-pastoral game of the Scots, and their courses reflect an intense devotion to grace and perfection. The courses are, by American standards, tight and very hilly, for the laws of Japan forbid the construction of recreational facilities on arable land. If you want to build a golf course, you have to find 200 acres that cannot be farmed. This usually means a rocky hillside that could not even be terraced for a rice crop, or perhaps a marsh. You carve away with the bulldozers, but even then there are not going to be many level stances.

The soil of Japan is not hospitable to the bent grasses on which golf is traditionally played in Britain and the U.S. A tough native grass called "Korai" has been commonly used, but this is stiff and prickly when mowed close, and leading foreign golfers often complained about the Korai greens when they visited Japan. As the nation began to care more about golf, it became sensitive to the annoyance of heroes like the great Sam Snead. At considerable expense, the leading courses, such as Yomiuri, built two greens for each hole, one of Korai for day-to-day use and one of imported bent for special occasions. Needless to say, Yomiuri's bent greens will be used for the Canada Cup.

It is alarming to contemplate what effect the coming Canada Cup matches could have on Japanese golf, for the present golf boom dates from the first appearance of this event in Japan in 1957. On that occasion, the Japanese watched the players on TV more out of curiosity than interest. To their immeasurable surprise and pleasure, they saw their own team—made up of Pete Nakamura and Koichi Ono—defeat all of the foreign invaders, including the heavily favored Americans, Snead and Jimmy Demaret. It was a moment comparable to that faraway day in 1913 at Brookline, Mass. when Francis Ouimet, the unknown young Bostonian, beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff for the U.S. Open Championship and thereby started the transformation of golf from a rich man's luxury to everyman's sport.

It is not very likely that a Japanese team could win on its home ground in 1966, but it wasn't conceivable in 1957, either. One of their two players, 28-year-old Hideyo Sugimoto, is large for a Japanese at 5 feet 11 and is regarded as his country's biggest hitter. He has never done too well abroad, but he was the Japanese Open champion in 1964, and he has the distinct advantage of playing at Yomiuri, where he is the head pro. His teammate, 24-year-old Mitsutaka Kono, is on the slight side and only 5 feet 6, but he has won the Japanese PGA championship for the past two years and can be extremely dangerous when his somewhat erratic game is at its peak. And the course itself will cut down the normal advantage that long-hitting foreigners might have. At 6,962 yards it is not overly long, and it has many treacherous slopes and areas where the wind, unfelt on the tee, will suddenly grab at the ball over an exposed section of fairway.

Nonetheless, the favorites will be the American entry of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Off his recent victory at the Sahara in Las Vegas, Nicklaus is obviously playing well again after some shaky golf in the early fall. He has the added incentive of wanting to regain the International Trophy for individual play, which he won at Paris in 1963 and Hawaii in 1964 but lost to South Africa's Gary Player at Madrid in last year's matches.

Palmer's incentive is somewhat different. By rights, his place on the team should belong to Bill Casper, who is not only the current U.S. Open champion but also the leading money-winner of the PGA tour. Palmer is as aware of this as everyone else, and he will be especially anxious next week to justify his selection. Not only that, but in four previous appearances on the U.S. Canada Cup team—more than any other American except Snead—he has never won the International Trophy. Such a victory at this stage in the year would do wonders for Arnold's morale. His Australian Open win a week ago was his first since the Tournament of Champions last April, and he is still smarting from his debacle in the U.S. Open at San Francisco.

It should be noted that Palmer's selection was entirely the decision of the Japanese hosts. The formula for choosing our team was drawn up by the U.S. PGA itself. It involves the PGA sending the host country a list of six players from which it can designate the two it wants. As long as Palmer's name is on that list the host country is going to choose him ahead of any other American golfer. Matsutaro Shoriki, the chairman of this year's matches, put the case quite plainly, saying, "We asked for Arnold Palmer to be included on the U.S. team because Mr. Palmer is the best-known golfer to the Japanese. Japanese golf fans regard him as the god of golf, and they sincerely want to see him play in this country."

Due in no small part to Mr. Palmer's presence, the four days of the Canada Cup competition are sure to be sold out before the golfers tee up on Thursday morning. One reason for this is the difficulty of accommodating galleries on Yomiuri's restricted hillsides. Since it would be impossible for large numbers of people to follow the progress of the various matches, it was decided to limit each day's gallery to 5,000, all of whom must remain stationary in some pre-selected position.

The enthusiasm of the golfu kichigai is such that they seem willing to accept this restriction without any serious public demonstrations. But if by any chance the Japanese victory of 1957 should be repeated, they will need Mt. Fuji to seat the crowd next time.

PHOTORICHARD MEEKUNIQUE ROOF of Yomiuri's clubhouse dwarfs the first tee and provides a tournament setting that is as unusual as Japanese golf itself. PHOTORICHARD MEEKINDOOR GARDEN, complete with a Japanese bridge, a pond and a stream, brings serenity and elegance to interior of Yomiuri clubhouse.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)