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Can the Ladies Rescue Japan's Failing Golf?

By John M. Ross,
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Japan's victory in the Cisco World Ladies Challenge may have been a boon for Nipponese golf. (.)

Japan's up-from-the-floor comeback to upset Team U.S. LPGA in the Cisco World Ladies Challenge might be precisely the right tonic for the ever-deepening depression that has gripped Nipponese golf. At least that's what Japan's golf industry is counting on, and it's not merely wishful thinking.

"It could be like 1957 all over again," one of its leaders was saying, rather wistfully, last week as the tiny nation toasted its conquering heroines. That was the year Japan discovered golf - when, against odds that might have topped Mount Fuji, it won the World Cup Golf. This touched off days of celebrating, even though most of the celebrants had no idea how the game was played.

"What is this game at which we are now the world champions - better than everyone else?" they asked. And then many of them decided to find out. That was the beginning of the Japanese golf rush.

Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono, the sons of the Rising Son who had given the homeland this glorious hour, hadn't won much of anything before that. And Red Corcoran, who ran the Cup at the time, watched them on the practice tee and confided to a companion that they might have trouble winning a club championship somewhere.

Well, they not only won the Cup, but they beat Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret, two of the game's very best players, by nine strokes. And they did it right there on Japanese soil - at the Kasumagaseki Club - and that made it so much sweeter.

Until then, Japan had fewer than 40 courses in the entire country. But the magic worked by Nakamura and Ono changed that quickly. Not only did it trigger the spectacular growth of the game on a crowded island that always seemed hard-pressed for more space, but it became the forerunner for the explosion of golf interest throughout Asia.

And this is what Japan's golfing fathers are hoping will happen again, now that their young ladies have won the World Challenge for the first time in 16 years. They're speculating that kimonos will be cast aside for pastel Bermudas, and damsels by the thousands will rise up and say, "What is this game...etc."

It can't come soon enough for the desperate Japanese. The plunging economy has been worsening steadily for most of the past decade, and golf has taken a direct hit. A recent report indicated that more than 1,700 Japanese courses are bankrupt, and there are many more tottering. Golfers, too, have been wiped out. Those who responded to the golf craze of the sixties and seventies by buying club memberships at astronomical levels - as much as a million dollars in an exclusive club - are now trying to bail out for less than five percent of that outlay.

The boom that developed in the years following the spectacular victory in the World Cup was one of the most remarkable in the whole history of the game. Almost overnight, there were tens of thousands of Japanese thirsting to try the game. And this became even more tantalizing when television started bringing the game into their homes.

The main problem: where could they play? Japan simply didn't have enough courses to accommodate even a tiny segment of the demand, and there was no quick solution in sight. Most of the larger, heavily populated areas, where the demand was greatest, had little open space - not enough to meet the needs of spacious golf layouts. Even if a piece of open land did become available, the farmer had top priority on it. Food comes before golf.

Developers did find some land on the outskirts, far outside the cities, but this involved long rides by car or train, and it was not the ideal solution. Nevertheless, more than 2,500 new courses were built during that boom period.

Those who were impatient gave birth to a unique golf phenomenon - the triple-deck driving range. This was the much-needed quick solution for those who felt they needed some connection with this fascinating game that had commanded the attention of the nation. In the sixties, Japan had become highly industrialized and fast-moving, and it paid close attention to how things were done in the U. S. When it focused on the successful American businessman, it was concluded that many had a golf connection. They belonged to golf clubs, did business on the courses. The Japanese reached for this status symbol - even though it was only a driving range.

Since space was the ever-present problem, there was no way the sudden demand for ranges could be satisfied - until some genius hit upon the idea of constructing a second tier of hitting areas above those on ground level. Building skyward required no additional base space but accommodated twice as many. And then someone, good in arithmetic, figured that a third tier would be even better. In less than a decade, there were more than 500 of them in Tokyo alone.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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