JAPAN

Cultural Departure: An exciting new way of playing the game in Japan

By Ju Kuang Tan

The world has been turned upside down and inside out by the spread of the coronavirus, or more specifically, SARS-CoV-2. Golf hasn’t escaped its wrath.

Courses the world over were closed for most of the last two months, an unprecedented move in the history of the game. Now that some have opened their doors to domestic golfers, the lingering effect to maintain hygiene standards are still in play. Social distancing, no touching of the flagstick, caddies staying away from golf bags, and no lingering in the clubhouse post-match – these are just some of the new standards that we all have to get used to, at least for some time.

Japan has been fortunate in that they’ve managed to stay away from the high-infection rates – and more importantly, death rates – that other first world countries have endured. One of the benefits of this is that their courses have remained opened all this while. The Japanese, after all, are great proponents of personal and social hygiene, and this has likely contributed to their abilities to stem the uncontrollable march of the virus across the world.

However, as traditional as the Japanese culture is, things will change in golf there. One of the age-old tenets of the game that has prevailed all these decades is looking like it may fall with a renewed concern in maintaining social distance. This is the compulsory meal break between the first and the second nine that has been a mainstay in Japanese recreational golf.

“Golf was originally played by wealthy businessman who spent time on the course to entertaining clients. The chance to stop after nine holes and have lunch and drinks allowed the players to talk business,” admits Joe Gaughwin, Golf Ambassador at Taiheiyo Club, one of Japan’s predominant course management companies. 

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Taiheiyo Club

“The original concept was not so much about golf but more about entertainment, and is seen as a very high society activity. The large stunning clubhouses were also part of this entertainment style of golf where it was believed the larger and more beautiful the clubhouse the more prestige it bought to the club.”

Apart from being one of the country’s most successful and professional managers of golf courses, Taiheiyo Club is also arguably its most progressive. Taiheiyo not only owns golf courses, but also runs three hotels and four golf schools, allowing it to adopt a vertical approach to catering to golfers. This is all part of the vision of Taiheiyo Club’s President and CEO, Shun Han, who believes in creating premium lifestyle experiences for their members.

In April, when golf courses the world over were wondering about revenue given the closures caused by Covid-19, or if they were even able to maintain their courses during the lockdowns, Taiheiyo opened its 18th golf course - Yachiyo.

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Yachiyo Course

Originally opened in 1961, and designed by Kokichi Yasuda, Yachiyo was is located just 50km from the centre of Tokyo, making it the company’s closest course to the capital city. Taiheiyo’s purchase and makeover of this conveniently located course is just one step in its foray into expansion.

The other is to change the mindset of the Japanese golfer into one of modernity.

“The narrative of today’s golfers is that the game takes too long,” adds Jiro Nonaka, Taiheiyo Yachiyo’s general manager. “I lived in Hong Kong for many years, and was frustrated at the time it takes to play golf in Japan. I believed that they needed to give Taiheiyo’s members the opportunity to have golf only take up half a day. This will hopefully entice back our members who had stopped playing due to time constraints.

“To have a course so close to the centre of Tokyo and also allow a play-through strategy was a perfect match. The chance to play golf in half a day in Japan – preferably in the afternoon, after working in the morning - is a new concept so it would be considered as the beginning of a new chapter for golf here.”

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Yachiyo Course

Yachiyo’s proximity to Tokyo is an integral aspect of this proposition. Not only is it a short drive from the city by car, but its location is also served by three major train lines.

One of the main objectives of Yachiyo’s play-through style was to entice busy members the opportunity to play golf midweek, with the notion of them being back in the office by lunchtime fully realised. The club has designed a weekend booking system which allows a mixture of tee times. Players are able to play straight through yet they have designed the time sheet to also cater for those who prefer the traditional style, allowing members and guests the chance to have a meal before embarking on the back nine.

Like most courses situated close to Tokyo’s city centre, Yachiyo does not have the privilege of sprawling land mass. At 6,251 yards in length and a par of 72, the course is not long by any means. The undulating terrain teamed with the small and undulating greens offers enough defence to keep the experience real for long hitters. And love it or loathe it, the Japanese affinity to putting trees sitting in fairways is an element golfers will just have to contend with here.

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Yachiyo Course

Taiheiyo clever reconstruction of the course has injected both challenge and variety. The dual-green system – where one is set back from the other – means that distances from tee to hole can vary each day. The short par-4s, together with the newly designed par-3 eighteenth, continues to reflect the adage that a hole doesn’t need to be long to be memorable – and more importantly, fun to play.

And of particular note, Yachiyo encourages walking in a country where golfers prefer not to. “Yachiyo entices people to enjoy walking,” provides Nonaka. “I believe walking is a major part of golf. Japanese golfers are too dependent on caddies and buggies.” 

Yachiyo’s course wasn’t the only thing that got a rebuild. “The old clubhouse was Tudor style and beginning to look a little dated and tired,” said Gaughwin who came to Japan from Melbourne by way of Singapore. “The new clubhouse is a much more modern looking building both inside and out. It now has a contemporary and minimalistic appeal.”

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Starters House

The shell of the clubhouse was predominantly conserved, but now showcases a black offset with earthy tones. The interior, however, was totally redone with lighter shades of wood on the walls and earthy hues chosen for the flooring. Both men and women locker and bathrooms on the second level have also been totally renovated.

The remodelled restaurant on the third floor is targeted to be a new focal point for members and their guests.

“These are the highest ceilings I have ever seen in a clubhouse and give a feeling of space,” Gaughwin continues. “Massive glass windows overlook the 18th hole. Many trees were removed to provide a better view of the course.”

Members shouldn’t get too distracted though, for the Chinese-inspired menu has earned the chef a two-star rating from Michelin. To take things in perspective, of the many Chinese restaurants in Tokyo, only two have two Michelin stars.

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Pro Shop

In support of Yachiyo’s effort to foster a play-through style of golf, the newly built Starters Hut - between the first and 10th tees - is a multi-purpose destination that contributes to this bold step. Not only does it house a kiosk that provides a quick takeaway of onigiri or curry bread and coffee, but it also be converted into a communal space to hold a party where people can gather around a Trackman to play golf courses around the world.

Since 2014 when Maruhan, a privately-owned company, purchased Taiheiyo Club, the course management company has grown every year. “Our progressive management style has seen the club prosper which is quite a feat considering there are some 2,500 courses in Japan vying for the golfers’ money,” attests Gaughwin. “ It’s a very competitive environment but Taiheiyo Club has positioned itself at the top. 

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Winecellar 

“Taiheiyo has distanced itself from competitors as the new management have added great value to the existing membership. We now have a very robust reciprocal and affiliate program that allows members to travel and play at some of the best clubs in the world. It has held numerous inter-club matches that have been very popular, showcasing the amazing Taiheiyo courses, hotels, restaurants and pro shops.

“Taiheiyo has also opened its doors to the world, organising membership categories for international golfers and access to their courses. Taiheiyo has built and English-speaking team which has a platform to cater for all international members and any guests inquiries. Taiheiyo is the only club involving itself in overseas affairs and is fast becoming a worldwide known brand.”

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