LOVE THAT GOLF

A CURIOUS AMERICAN EXPLORES THE GAME IN JAPAN AND FINDS THAT IT HAS A FIRM GRIP ON THAT NATION
August 20, 1989

No wonder we lost the war," the Japanese man said as I wore out the dimples on my ball with a 290-yard drive on the 18th hole....

Wait. Wait. Let's start at the beginning. What is this about you trying to salt your omelet with the cigarette lighter?

You don't want to hear about the drive?

The omelet.

Well, yes, that's true. I did try to salt my omelet with the cigarette lighter. But that was only because I had taken too much oxygen.

Hold on. Where was this?

This was at Koganei in Tokyo, the most expensive country club in the world. It takes about $2.5 million to join and even that might not do it; two years ago, a businessman reportedly made an offer of $3.57 million to join and was given the big raspberry. I mean, a divot at this place might go for $63. And not only do you have to cough up the 2.5 mil, but also there are the yearly dues. Of course, tees are free.

So you were having breakfast at Koganei....

Right. I'm having breakfast at Koganei, having talked my way into a big match on the Fourth of July in the most elite country club in the new money center of the universe, Tokyo. And I'm sort of on a mission. I mean, the Japanese are beating the microchip out of us these days, right? Did you know that nearly all the fax-machine makers in the world are Japanese? Did you know six of the 10 richest men in the world are Japanese and only one is American?

But I don't mind that so much, and I don't mind their buying so many great American golf courses, such as Riviera and La Costa. But when I heard a rumor that the Japanese had made an offer to buy Pebble Beach lock, stock and bunker, that really fried my sand wedge. I mean, can you imagine Pebble Beach for sale? That's like selling Mount Rushmore.

Or London Bridge.

Exactly. So I just wanted to go over there and see why the Japanese were so gaga over golf and also see if I couldn't win back just a little bit of face for America, you know? Just win back a small speck of dignity in my own little way.

So you set up this match.

Exactly. U.S. versus Japan. A 1,000-yen Nassau to the death. Loser eats flag and leaves town. I would play this six handicapper at Koganei, owner of a textile factory. As you know, I'm an 11, and....

Twelve.

O.K., a 12. He agreed to give me six strokes. So I had nine days in Japan to prepare for the match. I decided to learn all I could about Japanese golf—play like a Japanese golfer would play, eat what a Japanese golfer would eat, the whole ball of wax. I set out on a course of defeating my opponent by becoming him.

Very Oriental thinking.

Besides, I hit the ball the way they read.

How's that?

Right to left.

Yes. And you began this face-saving mission over an omelet?

No, at the oxygen bar.

Come again?

The oxygen bar. First, what you have to understand is that there is a word in Japan for "golf crazy": golf-kichigai. Golf has swallowed Japan whole. People will do almost anything, and pay almost anything, if it has anything to do with golf.

For instance, weekend greens fees at clubs near Tokyo are between $150 and $300. To play Koganei as a guest on a weekend will cost you $250, including lunch. Balls are sold one at a time, at about $8 each. Getting a tee time at even the ugliest course requires a telephone call one to three months ahead. Just to hit a bucket of balls at a driving range requires a reservation.

This is a country smaller than California, with a population half that of the United States, and Japan had only about 1,500 golf courses as of December '87. The U.S. had 12,500. Now the Japanese are building courses anyplace you can fit two phone booths. They think nothing of lopping off parts of mountains to build a course.

It's a mania, I tell you. Lawsuits have even been filed involving guys bonking people in the eye while practicing their golf swings on train platforms with their umbrellas.

One day, I played a public course called Akabane in northern Tokyo. The last guy to take a mower to this place must have been General MacArthur. It was as bad as any course in the U.S., yet it cost $100 to play on Saturdays. Doesn't matter. The golfers started lining up at two in the morning. The first foursome went off at 4:30 a.m., with 150 golfers waiting behind them. You don't know what it's like to have 150 Japanese watching you hit on the 1st tee.

What was it like?

I was shaking. But I managed to steer a two-iron into the fairway only after the caddie wrestled a seven-iron out of my hands.

Understandable.

In Tokyo there's even a brothel called Hole-In-One, with a putting green in the lobby. Can't you see some guy wandering in there? "Is there anybody here who can help me with my grip?"

So get to the oxygen bars already.

Right. I started at the oxygen bar because they're all the rage now in Tokyo. Some Japanese believe breathing pure oxygen improves your golf, though I never quite found out how. Apparently they think the rush of oxygen clears your head and lets you visualize the shot more clearly and hit it more smoothly, your muscles pulsing as they are with rich, right-off-the-shelf oxygen.

You walk in—most of the bars are in department stores and spas—pony up 100 yen (about 72 cents) and tell the bartender what your pleasure is: mint, coffee, orange or lemon. She flips a switch and turns over an egg timer, and you stick your face in an oxygen mask and suck for three minutes.

People sniff two or three rounds and then maybe buy a take-home can for later. The cans come in two sizes—5,000 and 10,000 milliliters—and run from $5 to $18. The girl at the oxygen bar in the Takashimaya department store says some customers come in once a week and take home a case.

I guess that's what's known as oxygen debt.

Right. So I ordered coffee, but the only thing I felt was woozy—and I had the overwhelming sense that I'd woken up in Juan Valdez's living room. Still, I bought a can to take with me for Koganei.

How in the world did this catch on?

There is a Japanese proverb: "The protruding nail gets hammered." Conform, or bring shame to yourself and your group. So if one person is sucking air, everybody wants to suck air. If your neighbor is bowling—as everybody in Japan was 10 years ago—then you bowl. And when they stop bowling, you stop. Which explains the giant bowling pins on roofs of warehouses all over Tokyo today.

So what makes you think golf will stick?

What could be better? You not only get out of standing-room-only Tokyo—where you now must be able to prove you have a place to park before you can buy a car—but also get to be in the group at the same time. To be alone and together.

And forget weekend golf. Golf is such a national jones in Japan now, that going to the driving range has become a hobby in itself. Of course, most of the ranges are on top of buildings, surrounded by nets. There's no land for golf. You can't buy three square meters in the Ginza for $1 million these days.

But the best and biggest range is freestanding—Shiba Golf, the world's largest practice range. When you first walk into Shiba Golf in downtown Tokyo, you notice that it's hailing. Or are those golf balls? One hundred and fifty-five golfers, stacked on three stories, turn the sky white. They hit their shots onto a 280-yard rubber-matted landing area, surrounded by nets 100 feet high.

This place is Japan at its finest. The balls roll downhill into a trough, which is banked so that the balls then roll outwardly to gutters on either side of the range. The gutters have conveyer belts that take the 500,000 Shiba balls to the basement to be cleaned and dried; then they are sent to two men who sit, day and night, pulling out the scuffed and damaged balls. Next the balls are whooshed up three floors by a pneumatic system and channeled into the reservoirs at each of the hitting stations, where the customer simply pushes a button and the clean, dried, cut-free balls come tumbling out.

Of course, unless you've arranged a tee time at the range in advance, you won't be pushing any buttons for an hour and a half or two hours. That's the usual wait, without a reservation, for a first-floor spot. No problem. Shiba Golf also has a swimming pool, bowling lanes. TV lounge, three restaurants, beer garden, massage, sauna, pro shop and golf-travel bureau with a giant board telling you where you might be able to get a weekend tee time within the next two months. Right now, that's nowhere.

So when do they play?

A lot of Japanese don't. There's a story about a PGA Tour player who, while visiting one of these driving ranges, comes upon a golfer with a beautiful, fluid swing.

"What do you shoot?" the pro asks the guy.

"I don't know," he says.

"Excuse me?" the pro says.

"I've never played on a golf course," the guy says.

Whether your wallet is full of dollars or yen, golf in Japan is expensive. Only 15% of the people who practice the game ever play on a real course, according to the Sunday Times of London.

"We could have four floors and fill it up easily," says the Shiba manager, Atsushi Mitobe. Range practicing has become so popular in Japan that people carry "rangebags," minibags that hold only three clubs. You drape it over your shoulder on the way to work and then swing at Shiba by night.

The Seibu Big Box practice range—on the fifth floor of a sports and shopping complex—has an indoor sand trap, encased by glass and net on all sides. This is real sand and real golf balls. You have not lived until you've skulled a sand shot you were sure was heading for ladies' lingerie.

I'll risk it.

The Japanese are also perfecting simulated golf, in which you pick your course—they will allow you to play Pebble Beach, Augusta, St. Andrews—grab your clubs and crank it. You hit a regular golf ball into a huge canvas that has the picture of the hole you're playing projected on it.

Three cameras record how fast the ball comes off the club, with what spin, and at what trajectory. Then the canvas shows the view from what the computer says is your next shot. For instance, if you chunk one way to the right, the next thing you see on the screen might be a bunch of trees. When you hit the green, the computer tells you to putt from one of 26 different spots on the artificial putting green in front of you.

I understand you shot 133 on this course.

Yes, well, that was only because at the 14th, the computer was convinced I was hitting the ball out of bounds. I hit 17 shots of every direction and size, and it refused to call any of them in bounds. Finally, I picked up a ball and threw it into the canvas, and the computer let me play on. I made a 38 on that hole.

I see. Now, about those salted fish chips.

Yes, I was getting to them. As I've said, in my determination to defeat my Japanese opponent, I thought Japanese, practiced Japanese, and even ate the way Japanese golfers eat. At Fuji Lakes Country Club, surely one of the most beautiful places in the world, sitting as it does on the toenail of Mount Fuji, I came off the course and was served the standard postgolf snack: dried, salted fish and green beans. That and an ice-cold beer. You know, it just doesn't get any better than that.

At Kawana, Japan's gorgeous version of Pebble Beach, only without the seals, I had the traditional "golfer's breakfast" in my room: rice, raw egg, seaweed, soybean soup, dried fish, Japanese pickles and green tea.

Seize the day.

I even ate blowfish, a sushi delicacy that kills about 100 diners a year in Japan. I didn't eat at Steak of Steaks Holytan, however, where a steak costs $175.

You ate the blowfish but not the steak?

I figured the odds of the steak killing me were worse. I also learned how to drink beer at the 28th hole (the Japanese always try to play 27 holes): Your opponent pours your beer, and you pour his, even for fill-ups. To do otherwise would be like opening his shirt pocket and sneezing in it.

Please.

Another thing. The Japanese don't flip a tee before the round to see who hits first. Instead, they draw one of four metal sticks out of a metal cannister. The man whose stick has one notch in it hits first. Two notches, second, and so on. Thus, the expression, "He swings a big stick."

You made that up.

I did. However, I am not making this up: Nobody in Japan wants to make a hole in one.

Come again?

It's true. The last thing you want to do is make a hole in one. I was curious why every time somebody would hit it close to the hole in Japan, but not in the hole, the players would holler, "Lucky!"

It turns out that in Japan the hole-in-one maker must pop for: 1) drinks for everybody in the club; 2) nice gifts for his best friends, usually silver pens with the feat engraved on them; 3) towels or the like, with the details of the feat embroidered on them for his B list of friends, about 100 of them; 4) a special tip for the caddie; 5) a tree to be donated to the course; and 6) a huge party within the month for all his friends, the witnesses and anybody else who knows about it. All of that can cost $5,000 and up.

Better luck next time.

Right. Also, for any bag that is overweight, the course charges extra. There's also an extra charge for playing on a rainy day. Not that you have a choice. There are no rain checks in Japan. We played at Kawana when it was raining miserably, yet the course was packed. "Only two groups have canceled today," the gleeful course manager told us.

In English ?

Well, O.K., not in english. But what is weird is the English the Japanese I use while playing golf. "Nishot!" I they say a lot. They give it a contortionist's twist of the body and I scream out, "Bunkahh!" They seem I to love saying that. There's also I "nisapproach" and "nistouch" and I "bardie!" It's like somebody sent I them the back of a cereal box with those golf expressions on it and everybody in Japan knows them.

I asked nearly every person I met on courses in Japan to tell me his favorite golf joke and nobody could tell me one. I guess they are so fascinated with the game that they have not yet gotten around to making fun of their fascination, as we do. Finally, one man said, "What do you mean, 'jokes'?"

"You know, jokes," I said. "Jokes about golf. Like the one about the guy who comes home and says to your wife, 'Boy, what a tough day on the course today.' And his wife says, "Really? What happened?' And the guy says, 'Well, Charlie dropped dead of a heart attack on the 3rd hole.' And his wife says, 'Oh, no, that's terrible!" And the guy says, 'You're telling me. All day long it was hit the ball, drag Charlie, hit the ball, drag Charlie.' "

The Japanese man did not laugh.

"Do you get it?" I said.

"I do not think that you showed much respect for this Charlie," said the man. "Nor for his wife."

This is what you are adding to the Japanese golf culture? Sick jokes?

Darn right! These guys need a laugh or two. Do you know how long it takes to play golf in Japan? All day and half the night is how long it takes.

The typical Sunday golf game for the average Japanese golfer goes like this: The night before, you ship your clubs off to the course, via a courier that specializes in transporting clubs, saving you the trouble of carrying them the next morning when you catch the six o'clock train, which will take you to your 9 a.m. tee time at a course far from Tokyo. Courses anywhere near Tokyo are much too costly.

You get to the course and tee off. But since the courses are so crowded, the wait is often 10 minutes between shots. You play nine holes in about three hours. Now you have lunch, drink beer and sake, soak in a Japanese bath and generally just waste time until your back-nine tee time.

Back-nine tee time?

Because so many people want to play golf in Japan, clubs send foursomes off both the front and the back nines all day. After you play one nine, you have to be squeezed into the other nine. O.K., so you play the other three-hour nine, get back in the bath, have a few beers and catch the train home.

One reason golf is so slow in Japan is that most of the players practice on the rooftop driving ranges. The most their shots travel is 20 yards before they hit the net. That's why the Japanese lose so many balls when they play on a course.

It's also slow because many Japanese are just plain rotten at it. "We don't play enough," is how Japanese course designer Takeaki Kaneda explains it. "The Japanese have no time. They work so hard. Most people's club is an hour to two hours from work. Jack Nicklaus grew up five minutes from Scioto."

Another thing is that a lot of Japanese golfers don't want to be golfers in the first place. It is only otsukiai—"socializing for business"—that has them out there. For a Japanese businessman, the golf course has become more workplace than playing field, and his handicap more a resume line than a hobby.

A decade ago, a businessman might have taken his client to a fine dinner in the Ginza and a few hours in Shinjuku tittering at a hostess bar; now he might take a client to a round of golf. Even if you hate golf, it would be committing career hara-kiri not to play if asked.

"If you're a businessman and you don't play golf, you're out of the promotion scene," says Toshio Aritake, an editor for McGraw-Hill in Tokyo.

The protruding nail gets hammered. So you play, but if you play lousy, you shame your group and business. "The stress is terrible," says Aritake.

Yes. I have heard about a Japanese malady—karoshi, "death from overwork." It sounds as if golf may be adding to the problem rather than solving it.

It's true. Luckily, the clubs try to make golf as relaxing as possible. At one course, Murasakizuka, north of Tokyo, a boy comes out during your bath and scrubs your back for you.

Very civilized.

Better yet, Japanese courses come equipped with the best caddies in the world, almost all of whom are women. Even on the hottest days, their uniforms never change: heavy walking shoes, long pants, matching long-sleeved smock, white gloves, hard hat with an eight-inch bill, and a tablecloth draped over the hard hat and tied loosely under the chin. The full effect is like Sister Bertrille of The Flying Nun pulling a double loop.

Our Holy Order of Bogey.

Right. The caddie's entire face is usually in shadow, and the only thing you hear is a voice way inside there saying, "Iz O.B."

With only one caddie per foursome, it is a mystery how she gets it all done. She marks and cleans the balls—not done in the U.S.—hands out everybody's putters, takes whatever clubs they're holding, advises everybody on the putting line, handles the pin, excuses three-putts, smooths egos and traps, takes the putters back, hands out drivers for the next hole, and makes it halfway down the fairway, ordering your clubs numerically as she goes, before you're ready to hit.

For this, she makes about $19,000 a year—plus a tip from the entire foursome: a pair of socks or a box of chocolates from one of the on-course teahouses. At some clubs she gets free lodging in a caddie dormitory. For most golfers, though, the thought of a caddie dormitory is chilling.

Why?

Because you can imagine the conversations that go on in a place like that: "So the guy says to me, '235 yards, what do you think it will take?' I wanted to say, 'With your swing? Two three-woods and a seven-iron.' "

Have we exhausted your store of information about caddies?

Well, there is one more thing. The caddies are seriously high-tech. At a lot of courses, when it's foggy or you can't see the hole, a caddie will whip out her walkie-talkie and check with the caddie ahead to see if it's clear to hit.

At the GMG course, west of Tokyo, the bags travel by an elaborate monorail system operated by the caddies by remote control. The four bags are loaded on a little tram—sort of a par-72 Futureland—and the caddie "walks" it along with the foursome up the side of the fairway, stopping it when she needs clubs and sending it whirring off when she doesn't. It's sort of like playing C-3PO's home course.

Japan may also be the only place on earth with escalators on the golf courses. Instead of making the players actually walk up hills, on many courses there are "skylators," rubberized moving sidewalks that whisk the player up the hill to the next tee.

So the players won't have to wait in order to begin waiting for their next shots.

And when you're done playing, you don't just scrape your shoes on the mat a couple of times and walk inside. You blow your shoes spotless with a high-pressure air hose.

Pardon me. This is all fine and good, but how does cleaning your shoes with a high-pressure air hose relate to your Nassau-to-the-death match on the Fourth of July at Koganei?

It's just in that I wanted to familiarize myself with the way of the Japanese golfer before I played my match on the Fourth of July, for undying respect and home-country glory.

Is that when you tried to ignite your omelet?

Yes, more or less. See, before the round I inhaled the whole can of oxygen. Then we went to have breakfast before the round. So we were having breakfast, and you must understand that things are not always as they seem at Koganei. For instance, Koganei, the most expensive course in the world, looks like a really nice muni. What makes the price so high is the prospect of the club's selling out to real estate developers. Each member would stand to make $4.4 million.

So...

So...the same goes for the table condiments. They are not all what they seem. I was looking for the salt and at first tried the little silver dish, but that was red pepper. Then I tried the gold thimble with the holes in the top, but that held toothpicks. I'm a little lightheaded from the oxygen, remember.

Certainly.

I thought I had solved it with the burnished-silver object. I held it over my omelet and tried to turn what I thought was a crank, as in, "Fresh ground pepper, sir?"

And when did you realize no salt was forthcoming?

When I saw the horror on my host's face, matched only by the ashen face of my interpreter. "No, this is not America," said my interpreter, snatching it from my hands and lighting it.

Thus you were set at a decided disadvantage to your opponent.

I was. Even though he pretended to stare out the window, he knew the humiliation I felt. So he goes out and beats me on the front side 2 up.

Of course. And did the nine-hole lunch and bath affect your timing on the back nine?

Horribly. For one thing, it is a bit disconcerting at a Japanese bath to have a woman handing you a towel as you get out. So, naturally, I hit my first shot out of bounds on the 10th tee. By the 13th tee, I was three holes down on the back-nine bet alone.

Deep shame was yours.

Yes, but then I thought of the adage: "Even a thousand-mile journey begins with a single step."

In that you took strength?

I did. I won the next three holes by parring two of them while he made three straight 6s.

Even monkeys fall from trees.

True. But we split the next two holes, and so it was that we came to the par-5 18th hole all tied. And, as I said, I stepped up and absolutely hit a two-cheeker of a drive that went 290 yards and caused one man in our group to say, "No wonder they won the war."

We heard that.

Meanwhile, my Japanese opponent had hit his ball out of bounds. He was lying three. 50 yards behind where I was lying one. A win on the back nine was most certainly mine. I could gain a split on the man's home course, which, naturally, I would take back to America as a glorious victory.

You were gladdened.

Yes. Unfortunately, I had forgotten the Japanese proverb: "Darkness lies one inch ahead." In my excitement to save American face, I tried to reach the green in two and make an eagle.

Very symbolic.

Instead, I topped my three-wood sideways into a trap, hit a tree coming out, bombed my approach 30 yards over the green, hit a bad chip and two-putted for a 7. During all this, he had recovered nicely and made a 15-foot putt for a 6 and a one-hole victory.

You choked worse than Heimlich.

This is true. But afterward, I got to thinking about the world as a global village. I remembered how George Bush wants to share our defense secrets with Japan. And I recalled seeing news of a joint microchip venture between Hitachi and Texas Instruments. And I thought about what a good time I'd had among the friendly and generous people of Japan. Suddenly, I felt proud just to have participated.

In other words, he bought the beers.

Exactly.

PHOTOJOE McNALLYSOME VORACIOUS APPETITES FOR GOLF FIND SUSTENANCE AT THE SHIBA DRIVING RANGE IN TOKYO PHOTOJOE McNALLYEARLY BIRDS GET BIRDIES? IT'S ONLY 4:15 A.M., BUT THE LINE AT THE AKABANE COURSE IS GROWING PHOTOJOE McNALLYWITH MOUNT FUJI IN THE BACKGROUND, A JAPANESE GOLFER AT THE KAWANA RESORT TAKES A SWING THREE PHOTOSJOE McNALLYCADDIES CHECK AHEAD BY WALKIE-TALKIE, CLEAN THE BALL AND FOLLOW EACH SHOT (TOP) PHOTOJOE McNALLYAT SOME HIGH-TECH COURSES, SUCH AS GMG, GOLF BAGS ARE TRANSPORTED BY A MONORAIL SYSTEM TWO PHOTOSJOE McNALLYDEPARTMENT STORES IN TOKYO OFFER EVERYTHING FROM SCENTED OXYGEN TO INDOOR SAND TRAPS PHOTOJOE McNALLYFOG AND EXOTIC FLORA ADD A SPECIAL JAPANESE FLAVOR TO THE DAIHAKONE COUNTRY CLUB PHOTOJOE McNALLYA NEOPHYTE GETS HANDS-ON HELP ON HER SWING FROM AN INSTRUCTOR AT A ROOFTOP RANGE PHOTOJOE McNALLYAFTER A FEW HOURS ON THE FAIRWAYS OF DAIHAKONE, A GOLFER ENJOYS A SOOTHING HOT BATH BREAK

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)