With a population density of 333 people per square kilometre – compared to 18 in New Zealand – you’d think that squeezing golf courses into the landscape in Japan would not be easy.
Yet somehow Japan, despite losing between 20 and 40 per cent of its players in the last 25 years, still has nearly 2500 courses, and as witnessed recently, has a golfing economy big enough to attract many of the world’s best to play a tournament.
It helped that the recent Zozo Championship – sponsored by Japan’s biggest online fashion retailer – offered $9.75 million in prizemoney and with a limited field of 78 players, everybody would make the cut and get paid at least $15,000.
The aspect of the tournament that intrigued so many New Zealanders in the Tokyo-Yokohama area for the Rugby World Cup semi-finals at the end of October was that a significant golf tournament could be played less than 50 kilometres away from the Yokohama International Stadium’s big weekend – and still attract sellout crowds, when they were allowed in.
It helped that Tiger Woods was playing – and winning. From his 64 on the opening day to the controlled round of 2 under on the Sunday and Monday, Woods was never out of at least a share of the lead en route to his 82nd PGA Tour win, equaling the extraordinary mark set by Sam Snead, a record set in a day and in an era when the strength and depth of the fields were nowhere near what they are today.
(Here’s a thought to ponder. How many times do you win a weekly scramble or the Saturday Stableford at your club? If you’re having a good run it might be a couple, maybe three times in a year. That means your win ratio might be around 4 or 5 per cent. Since Tiger turned pro in 1996, up till the end of October 2019 he’s won 82 times in 359 starts on the PGA Tour. That’s a winning percentage of 22.8%. Who at your club would allow that kind of ratio?)
Oh, and for good measure, there have been 12 other wins on the European, Japanese, Asian and Australasian Tours which were not co-sanctioned with the PGA Tour. Shall we start thinking about a hundred worldwide victories now?
Woods winning appearance in the Chiba Prefecture, part of greater Tokyo, came 13 years after his previous appearance in Japan. It was part of a 3 tournament Asian swing for the PGA Tour – there were events in Korea and China either side of it – but it was the first time an official PGA Tour event has been played in Japan itself.
Those of us with a golfing mind who were there on Rugby World Cup supporters’ duty looked at the logistics of trying to get a little golf watching in. Theoretically, it should have just been possible but the downpour on the scheduled day of the second round put paid to that. Only two weeks after Typhoon Hagibus had ripped through the central part of Honshu, a massive 96 mm of rain fell on the Friday of the tournament. That was the day before the All Blacks ill-fated RWC semi-final, a day on which the captains’ runs were cancelled, and severely challenged the free-draining playing surface inside the stadium.
So the second day of the golf was called off and our plans for a bit of Tiger spotting were thwarted.
But the play was rescheduled in a bizarre sort of way so that American TV could take advantage of the weather interruption in the most lucrative of ways.
Fortunately, the weather was fine and dry for the weekend and for the Monday morning.
So the plan was for the second round to be played on Saturday, then the third and as much of the 4th round on Sunday. But with the sun setting at 4.53pm on Sunday – Japan in the autumn gets dark very early – there was no way the event could be completed on the planned 4th day.
But with the 13 hour time difference between Tokyo and New York, an 8 am start for the conclusion on Monday morning local time meant the event could be completed on prime time Sunday night TV in the eastern United States.
And with Tiger having 7 holes to play on Monday morning, local time, and with Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama chasing him, it was a promoter’s dream with a 2 hour Woods cameo during America’s most-watched time of the TV week.
So all we could do in Yokohama was watch on TV before we went to the rugby. It meant viewing not just with Japanese commentary, but also with Japanese graphics. That’s a challenging experience.
For some reason though, the leaderboard was configured in a way that while there was Japanese writing for “Woods” and “Woodland” and “McIlroy” there was none for their initials. So when the scores came up we knew the guy with the initial “T” was in front of a Japanese player with a shot or two back to the player whose initial was “G” and so on.
It took a while but eventually, it was as easy to read as the English defenders found the All Blacks attacking moves a few hours later.
The second round on Saturday was notable also for having no spectators. After so much rain on the Friday, organizers decided it was too dangerous for the public to be on the course the next day. A pity, as the tickets had been highly sought after and there were thousands there to watch even the practice rounds.
The result of the inaugural PGA Tour event in Japan could hardly have been better scripted, despite the rain. With Tiger’s record-equaling win and Matsuyama runner-up, the first year of a deal running through to 2025 was the perfect outcome.
The presence of so many PGA Tour stars in Chiba – the top 60 available from the 2019 Fedex Cup made up the majority of the field – and that they came from 16 different nations augurs well for the second modern iteration of golf at the Olympics next year.
(Did you know that Rory Sabbatini, voted first equal with Bryson de Chambeau on the list of “least favoured playing partners” on the Tour, is now a citizen of Slovakia?)
After eventually discovering that golf at the games is not a bad idea after all, the likes of McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Marc Leishman, Adam Scott and Matsuyama, who all declined the opportunity to go to Rio but who all fronted for this event in Japan, may now be tempted to return to the country in late July and early August next year to chase a gold medal.
Who knows, even the man for whom golf was brought back to Olympics in by the IOC 2009, Tiger Woods himself, may be in good enough form to become an Olympian.
His win during the last weekend of October suggests that is not beyond the realms of possibility.