Monday, December 29, 2008

Golf In Japan



After doing so many posts about my golfing experience in Japan, I thought I would do one entry that links back to all the relevant posts so that anyone wanting to do an in-depth review of Japanese golf could look in one place for all the write-ups.

A golf trip to Japan is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is highly recommended. For the aficionado, golf in Japan is synonymous with Charles Alison, an English designer who did a lot of work in the country in the 1930s. His work is spectacular and is characterized by elevated, generally round shaped small greens, strategic bunkering, particularly around the greens, forced carries over ravines and routings that create a lot of shot variety. Alison is clearly one of the most talented golf architects that ever lived.

I was very lucky to be able to play at three private courses in Japan and also the public course Kawana, all worked on by Alison. The uniqueness of golf in Japan is also characterized by their highly ritualized protocol about play and the middle-aged female caddies in their distinctive uniforms.


Japanese Golf Etiquette

Hirono Golf Club
Naruo Golf Club
Kawana Golf
Toyko Golf Club

Japanese Caddies
Japanese Driving Ranges
The Bullet Train

Having a guide that speaks English is critical if you are to play in Japan. I highly recommend using Japan Golf Tours for their knowledge and professionalism and because they can help you gain access to private courses.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Naruo Golf Club - Japan's Hidden Gem



Naruo Golf Club (ranked #75 in the world) is located in the hills between Kobe and Osaka. Naruo is a private golf course and you must play with a member. The course was designed by Scottish professionals Joe Crane and H.C. Crane in 1904 with revisions made by C.H. Alison in 1930. The course was founded by British expatriates and is Japan's hidden gem. Naruo is a narrow, quirky and very difficult golf course. The greens at Naruo are 'korai' grass, which is like a thicker version of Bermuda and is quite slow, running about an eight on the stimp meter.

If you haven't read the post on how structured golf is in Japan, click here to learn the proper protocol.

If you ever have the opportunity to play Naruo Golf Club I suggest you do some training beforehand. Perhaps run a marathon, enter an Ironman competition or train for the Olympics. You need to be fit to play Naruo. The course is built on terrain that is quite hilly and is one of the most difficult courses I have ever walked. As with all private courses in Japan, there are caddies and you walk the course. How difficult is Naruo to walk? So difficult that they have built in a traction system around all eighteen holes so that the caddies don't have to push the carts up and down the hilly terrain. The mechanized system works with some sort of magnets under the ground and the caddie controls it by remote control. The property at Naruo reminded me of Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles because it is a relatively small piece of landlocked hilly property.

Naruo tram

The cart tram at Naruo


The course is not only narrow, but also has a lot of uneven lies. I personally rank it as one of the hardest courses in the world along with Bethpage, Oakmont and Carnoustie. Playing Naruo requires you to embrace the Japanese phrase nanakorobi yaoki which translates to 'perseverance is better than defeat'. The Japanese occasionally adapt a close variation of an English word to describe something. I wouldn't at all be surprised if Naruo were a bastardization of the English word 'narrow'.

Almost every hole at Naruo has an out of bounds. The first hole is a good example of what you find a Naruo. Notice the narrowness of the fairway, sloping fairways and an elevated, small green in the distance on the right.

N1 fairway

The narrow 1st hole at Naruo, par four 383 yards

The course has tiny greens, most are elevated and as is typical on an Alison designed course, well bunkered. Below are two good examples of the well bunkered greens on the 2nd and 4th holes, both par threes.

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Elevated 2nd green - par three 182 yards

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Elevated 4th green - par three 207 yards


Naruo has an interesting and varied routing that offers no respite. The 8th hole is a remarkable par four that doglegs more than ninety degrees. It is a 437 yard par four that is in the shape of a semi-circle.



It is a double-dogleg that sweeps around to the left with O.B. on both sides of the hole the entire way. You have to hit your drive both long and to the right if you want any hope of seeing the flag.

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The flag is set around a dramatic dog leg to the left and has a very narrow opening, is elevated and well protected with bunkers.

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8th from the fairway looking at the green

The hole plays in spectacular isolation and is as beautiful as any inland hole you will ever play. The round green, seen below looking backward, is typical of many Alison greens.

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The tilted 8th green looking back at fairway
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View from the 9th tee

After you finish the front nine there is a little mechanized golf cart that brings you up a steep incline back to the clubhouse to have lunch. The cart seats four and is so absurdly slow that you could clearly walk up a lot faster, but at this point, most people are hurting, so it is a nice transition to lunch.

The 10th hole is the hardest par four I have ever played. It makes the Road Hole at St. Andrews look like a birdie opportunity. It plays 470 yards and it is best to hit a very long drive here since you want your second shot to be as short as possible. The forced carry is over 'death valley', a 170 to 200 yard carry over a chasm that has a thirty foot drop. If you are unlucky enough to have your ball go down into the valley of death, you can't even remotely see where the flag or hole is located.

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10th hole looking back from green across ravine

We played the 10th into a wind and I was so far back that I played my second shot to a nearby fairway on another hole so that I could avoid the chasm. I made a double bogey but at least I came back alive and didn't get lost down in that un-godly thing.

The 15th, a par three, reminded me of the par three 4th hole at Royal County Down with its forced carry over heather. Here, the carry is over Japanese pines and is 175 yards, uphill.

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15th, a tough par three

The 15th hole also has a typically Japanese experience. At all Japanese courses there is a structured protocol that must be followed. At Naruo we had the archetypal Japanese golf experience. The arrival and check-in, the pre-round cup of coffee, the lunch with beer and coffee. At Naruo, in addition to the usual routine, the tradition also includes a quick cup of small tea. At the 15th hole, there is a little house where you have a cup of tea before playing the hole.

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tea house by the 15th hole

The sixteenth is a 378 yard par four with a blind tee shot. You can see from the picture below the steepness of the terrain at Naruo and the unusual outfits the female caddies wear.

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16th approach to the green

After the round we had a shower, communal bath and another round of beers. As we were sitting in the clubhouse butchering the Japanese language the server brought out a bowl of nuts and some other munchies that looked like pretzels. Turns out they are some sort of fish cracker wrapped in seaweed. I popped one into my mouth and wish I could have spit it out, but sucked it up and told our host how delicious it was!

Naruo is a 6,565 yard course but plays longer because of the elevation. On the negative side Naruo has too much O.B. for my game and the greens are arguably too small. The sand was like hard pan and in poor condition when I played. The traction system moving the bags around is amusing and unique but ultimately annoying since your clubs can often be far away from where you are hitting your shot. You can run the poor caddie ragged getting clubs and running back and forth in her head-to-toe polyester suit.

If you are a near scratch or better play, you will play Naruo well. If not, you will still enjoy one of the best golf courses in the world, but be prepared to be beat up both physically and mentally. Naruo is clearly worthy of its place in the world rankings.

Finishing the round at Naruo was a sad experience for me. It was the last course I played on my grand tour of Japan's top courses. I very much enjoyed playing these top shelf courses and enjoyed the politeness and hospitality of our hosts immensely. I don't know that my budget or my wife will ever permit me to return, which is too bad. I will always treasure my golfing memories here.





Check out the club's website, although it is in Japanese, they have nice video images of each hole: Naruo Golf Club's Website

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hirono Golf Club - Japan's Pine Valley


The clubhouse at the venerable Hirono Golf Club


Hirono Golf Club (ranked #35 in the world) is Japan's most distinguished golf club, located near the port city of Kobe. We took the bullet train down from Tokyo to Kobe and the course is less than an hour drive from there. Hirono is a private course and you must play with a member. The course was built in 1932 by C.H. Alison and is his masterpiece, and the best course in Japan. The course was built on an estate that was previously owned by a feudal warlord.

If you haven't read the post on Japanese golf protocol, click here to get the full flavor of the structure of playing at a private course in Japan.

The course has a uniqueness to it similar to that of Morfontaine in France or Pine Valley in the United States, with a great routing and unique holes. As with these two great courses, most holes are isolated from the others by dense trees. The par threes at Hirono are especially strong. The course is also one of the best conditioned I have ever seen. The greens and fairways are in meticulous condition and even the trees throughout the course are manicured from top to bottom like a Japanese garden. It also has all the key elements present in the courses of this great designer: strategic bunkering, small elevated greens, double dog-legs and forced carries over ravines.


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The 3rd green at Hirono, "Nanten Isle"


Most of the greens at Hirono are elevated. The trouble at Hirono is off the tee and around the greens. The course is built on relatively flat terrain and most of the lies you get in the fairway are level. Alison's design is very effective in creating illusions and incorrect depth perceptions.


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The 4th green at Hirono, "Lake-Pont"


The 5th hole at Hirono, nicknamed "Fiord" is like a smaller version of the difficult 5th at Pine Valley. It is a par three that plays over water to an elevated green. At Hirono the hole is shorter, at only 152 yards, but plays uphill.

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The Pine Valley-like 5th hole at Hirono, "Fiord"


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Par three 7th hole, "Devil's Divot"


The same hole is seen below shortly after the course opened in 1933. See how much the course has been 'cleaned up' and polished. It looks like the major hazard of the "Devil's Divot" has been softened, which is too bad; it looks like the course truly had a Pine Valley feel to it when it was built.

hirono7th
The Devil's Divot in 1933

The routing at Hirono varies long and short holes nicely, creating an interesting variety of shots. A good example is the 8th hole, "Cedar Grove," so named because both sides of the fairway are lined with cedar trees. It is a short 353 yard par four with water short right and a green framed by tall bamboo trees behind it, creating a tranquil alcove.
H8-1

8th green at Hirono, "Cedar Grove"


The tenth green at Hirono, below, is a good example of how Alison elevated and bunkered his greens. This particular green slopes back to front on this 351 yard par four. The hole is nicknamed "Mt. Mekko" for the high mountain that sits in the distance behind the hole.
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Elevated 10th green at Hirono, "Mekko"


The twelfth hole is the #1 handicap hole at Hirono and it is a double dog-leg par five that plays 596 yards with O.B. along the left side. It is a good hole, but there are two even better holes on the back nine as you come in toward the clubhouse: 14 and 15. In fact, the stretch of holes from 12 through 15 is one of the finest in the world.

The thirteenth hole, "Loch Lomond," is a 167 yard par three that plays downhill over water in an idyllic setting. While not exactly like the par three 14th at Pine Valley, the hole did remind me of it.

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13th hole at Hirono, par three, "Loch Lomond"


The 14th hole is like no other hole I have seen (golf hole, that is). It looks unremarkable on the scorecard. It is only 388 yards from the back tees. When you approach the tee you see one of the widest fairways in the world. Perhaps as wide as the combined 1st-18th at The Old Course at St. Andrews. You must hit your tee shot over a ravine to reach the tilted fairway. The fairway tilts both back to front and right to left. So while technically you only have to carry the ball 130 yards to hit the fairway, doing so leaves you with virtually no shot to the green. Only a carry of 200 yards and to the right will leave you on flat ground with a view of the hole. In other words, the first 70 yards of fairway is setup as a hazard. It's brilliant.

H14 fwy

The 14th fairway looking back toward the tee


If you do not hit your ball 200 yards to the top of the hill, it will roll a significant distance in the wrong direction, that is, away from the green. The fairway is shaped like a big 'V' and the hole doglegs to the left. The hole is aptly nicknamed "Quo-Vadis" which is Latin for "Where are you going?"

H14.fwy-1

The uphill 14th fairway from the bottom


To give you a sense of the severity of the slope, the hole has its own escalator. That's right, its own escalator. As at all the top Japanese courses, you walk. The gradient is so steep on this hole that if you are fortunate enough to hit your drive long enough (I was), you get on an outdoor escalator installed along the right side of the fairway to spare you the sharp uphill walk.

Only on a small handful of courses in the world can you find two truly world-class holes back to back. The 14th and 15th at Hirono are two such holes. The 15th is a 568 yard par five that once again doesn't look that hard off the tee. A good drive will leave you on the fairway, hopefully on the right-hand side so that you can avoid the big tree on the left side seen below.

H15 fwy

Tree blocking approach on 15th fairway, "Ichino-Tani"


Your second shot has to land on a fairway 'island' that provides the only safe passage to the green. There are two ravines to navigate: one short of the green and one between this fairway area and the intermediate fairway. Throw in some severe bunkers around each fairway area and you've got yourself one hell of a golf hole. It is not the kind of hole where you can just blast away with two big shots in an attempt to overpower the hole. The first person to ever reach the green in two was Jack Nicklaus and since then very few golfers have ever done so in competitive rounds. You have to make three strategic choices to get to the green on this well thought out dog-left left hole.

The one thing that keeps Hirono from being ranked higher in the world than 35 are its greens, in my humble view. While they were the best ones I played in Japan from a conditioning standpoint and they played the fastest, because they are bent instead of the slower 'Korai,' they all tend to be relatively flat and roughly in a circular or oval shape in all instances.

H15

Ravine on 15th fairway


I literally and figuratively did the full monty at Hirono. We arrived to have the obligatory pre-round coffee, played quickly and came in for a very nice lunch. I can't remember another golf club that I've played that has white linen table cloths, white glove service and world-class food at the turn. Hirono has a civilized ambiance to it. The appropriate protocol at lunch is to have beer before your meal and coffee afterwards. I didn't feel like having a beer and got the appropriate subtle scolding from our host. Saru mo ki kara ochiru (nobody's perfect). It was a mistake I would not repeat the next day at Naruo, where I would follow the protocol perfectly.

It took me only four times before getting the entire Japanese golfing routine down. We did the post-round communal hot bath in an elegant and appropriately large-sized room. Like everything else at Hirono, it was done perfectly. My post-bath shrinkage was a bit more than I had hoped for, but the geriatric group I shared the bath with didn't seem to gasp aloud when I got out. Faced with an embarrassing situation, the Japanese often resort to silence - mokusatsu. Whereas an American might have given a spontaneous "wooh", they showed no emotion and I'm quite grateful that their custom is to be so polite. They must make great poker players.

Our host at Hirono was a distinguished elderly gentleman. He was 75 years old but looked like he was 60. In general, men in Japan are extremely fit and don't look anywhere near their age. They are also sticklers for the rules of golf. There are no gimmies at Hirono (or in Japan generally). Every single stroke counts. He was even looking subtly to see that I didn't tee my ball ahead of the markers a couple of times during our round.

Alison wrote about Hirono: "Almost every hole has some bold natural feature, and for variety of scene and strokes Hirono is difficult to beat. I can name no superior among British inland courses." While I think Sunningdale and Woodhall Spa are as good as Hirono, Alison's basic point is right on. Hirono is both a classy club and a brilliant Golden Era course designed by one of the masters of the trade and clearly deserves to be ranked among the top 50 courses world-wide.

For a fantastic photo montage of Hirono shortly after it was built from Golf Club Atlas click here. Thank you for posting them Paul Turner.

Hirono's Web Site


P.S. It's too bad you couldn't join us on the Japan trip Sheldon. Although, in hindsight it may have worked out since you probably would have given the old boys at Hirono a cardiac arrest in the bath with your impressive equipment.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tokyo Golf Club



The Tokyo Golf Club opened in 1914 in Komazama and was built on leased land. It was started by Junnosuke Inoue after he visited New York and saw golf courses there. The course was moved to Asaka in the Saitama Prefecture in 1932 and was designed by C.H. Alison, who designed several courses in Japan during this time period.

Unfortunately the land and course were seized by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. The current course, and the third incarnation of the Tokyo Golf Club was built by Kohmyo Ohtani in 1940 based on the earlier layout by Alison. It is located in Sayama City, about an hour and a half outside the city center. The U.S. Army took over the course in 1946 and returned it to the members in 1952. Alterations were made by the architect Desmond Muirhead in 1987.

Tokyo Golf Club was the hardest of all the private courses in Japan to get on. It's the equivalent of a Muirfield club in Scotland in terms of its exclusivity and traditions. The guest green free wasn't bad at about $200.


Tokyo Golf Club Clubhouse

Clubhouse at Tokyo Golf Club and the 18th green


The club has the equivalent of a royal designation in the U.K. in that His Imperial Highness Prince Yasuhiko Asaka became president of the club in 1940.

Tokyo Golf Club is built on relatively flat land. It is characterized by its elevated greens, fairways that get progressively narrow as you get near the green, and extremely difficult rough.

The elevated sixth green at Tokyo Golf Club

I never realized how hot and humid Japan is, but it gets quite hot, especially in the peak of the summer. As such, many courses in Japan have two sets of greens with different types of grass. One strain that is better in cooler weather and one set is better in warm weather. The best illustration of the two-green layout can be seen below in this picture of the eighth green(s) on this challenging par three. Note one green on either side of the tree.

T8 - two greens

Eighth greens at Tokyo Golf Club

The strategic use of cross-bunkering at Tokyo in the fairways is seen on the second hole, below.

T-2


Second hole at Tokyo Golf Club


The course has a lackluster front nine but a much better back nine, particularly holes ten through fourteen. The 10th hole, pictured below, is a good example of how the fairway narrows and snakes its way toward the greens at Tokyo Golf Club, putting a premium on hitting fairways and greens.

Approach to the 10th hole

I liked the 11th hole quite a bit. It is a short par four with a highly elevated green and beautiful "Alison" bunkering.

11th green at Tokyo Golf Club

There is a Japanese Air Force base located quite nearby Tokyo Golf Club. Similar to the experiences you have at Royal Dornoch or The Old Course at St. Andrews, throughout the round there were fighter jets taking off.

The 17th green at Tokyo Golf Club is again a good example of the elevation found around the putting surfaces. This beautiful downhill par three places a premium on hitting the green.

T17


The 17th, elevated green at Tokyo Golf Club

Tokyo Golf Club at times reminded me of the George Thomas designed Los Angeles Country Club North Course in both style and feel.

When we were done playing at Tokyo Golf Club, we had our clubs shipped to our next scheduled course, Hirono Golf Club near Kobe. Since most Japanese travel by train it is impractical to carry clubs around with you. This efficient service, which almost all courses offer, ships your golf clubs for about $10. It is a great bargain and it is nice not to have to carry around clubs in such a space constrained country.

Another of Charles Alison's Japanese designed courses is immediately next door to Tokyo Golf Club and runs parallel to holes eleven and twelve - Kasumigaseki (East).

Tokyo

This was my first visit to Tokyo and I found the city hard to take in. With 36 million people in the metropolitan area it is the largest concentration of people on the planet. Imagine a city with the geographic footprint of Los Angeles and the density of Manhattan and you have Tokyo. There are elevated highways running through the chaotic city with apartment blocks and office towers abutting the highways almost everywhere. Virtually every block is like Times Square or Piccadilly Circus in its vibrancy and use of neon. It has the ugliest architecture of any city I have ever seen with an almost absurd emphasis of utility over aesthetics. Being in Tokyo is often times a surreal experience given the scale and magnitude of everything. In his science fiction silent movie of 1927, Metropolis, Fritz Lang imagined an overwhelming futuristic city with cross-crossing elevated highways, unimaginable density and hyper-activity. Modern day Tokyo is that city.



What makes the city a joy to visit despite its architectural banality is the Japanese people. They have a charm, sense of manners and self-discipline that makes their city truly a unique place in the world.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Kawana - Fuji Course


Add ImageMount Fuji

The Kawana Fuji course (ranked #80 in the world) is often called Japan's Pebble Beach because it is a golf resort set on cliffs near the ocean. The course is accessible only to hotel guests. Kawana is located in Shizuoka Prefecture, two hours from Tokyo on the Izu Peninsula. It is located within a national park on Sagami Bay. The course was completed in 1936 by Charles H. Alison, partner of the great H.S. Colt. Alison took a vacation at the Kawana hotel in 1930 and convinced the owner that he should use the amazing land here to build a golf course.

During the Second World War almost all the golf courses in Japan had to be converted into farmland to produce food. The remaining courses were taken over by the occupation forces. Hotel Kawana was taken over by the U.S. Eighth Army and was later handed over to the Australian troops to be converted to a recreation center.

Unfortunately, we played Kawana on a rainy day. When you travel 6,500 miles to play a course, you're going to play no matter the weather. I didn't have a particularly good nights sleep since rain was pelting the windows all night long. We delayed the tee time an hour because at breakfast it was still raining like a monsoon. We played the first three holes in a downpour, but luckily the weather got progressively better as we went along. The picture at the top of this post is of the 12,388 foot high Mt. Fuji, which you can see from the course only about a half-dozen times a year, given the vagaries of the weather patterns near the mountain.

Kawana is a beautiful Alison course with brilliant use of terrain, a lot of shot variety, beautiful bunkering and memorable par threes. The start at Kawana is one of the best in the world. You tee off from a high, elevated tee down into a narrow fairway with a view of the water in the distance. It reminded me a bit of the first tee shot at Spyglass. The drop off the elevated tee is quite dramatic, and drops about 100 feet. Riviera has a similar elevated first tee shot. My estimate is that the drop in elevation here is probably twice as high as the one at Riviera.

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Looking down the fairway from the 1st tee at Kawana

You can see from the picture taken off the second tee that the elevation change at Kawana can be quite acute throughout the course.

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2nd fairway with big sweeping hill

The third hole, pictured below, is narrow and the landing area is at an odd angle from the teeing area. The hole plays significantly longer than the 450 yards on the card. Kawana reminded me of playing in Northern California at times. Variously, it looks like either The Olympic Club, Spyglass and Pebble Beach. This hole reminded me of the narrowness at Olympic.

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The narrow third fairway at Kawana

The greens are generally round and fairly small at Kawana. This one, of the fourth green, below, is typical of what you will find in terms of green shape or size.

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4th green at Kawana

The greens at Kawana are almost always elevated, as was typical of Alison's design style. They are also well-bunkered, as you can see from the most acute example on the course seen below, on the 18th hole.

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The 18th green at Kawana

This picture below was taken on the 17th fairway. As an island nation, the weather in Japan is changeable. One of the great aspects of playing golf is being out in the elements. Sometimes you catch the weather just right. Other times you have to adjust to the conditions at hand and enjoy the moment. Low clouds were blowing through quickly as we played the back nine. As the clouds lifted, it revealed the high mountains in the background. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was probably a result of jet-leg, too little sleep and a mild hangover, but a couple of times while playing Kawana it felt like an out-of-body experience. Playing the 17th hole was a magical moment and illustrative of how enchanting playing in Japan was.

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17th fairway at Kawana


The terrain is so steep throughout the course that to get to the 5th tee box you have to take an outdoor escalator. I have taken an elevator before during a round of golf, namely, at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, but this is the first time I've taken an escalator.


Escalator to the par three 5th hole


The natural undulations of the terrain can also be seen well in this picture of the 9th fairway, below, looking backward from the green.

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9th fairway at Kawana


The 15th at Kawana is clearly one of the world's greatest golf holes. It is a par five that plays next to the Pacific Ocean on a high cliff with dramatic views. You hit over a deep ravine to a fairway below you and to the right. This part of the course feels a lot like Pebble Beach.

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The dramatic 15th hole at Kawana

After your tee shot the hole plays uphill and the fairway slopes from the right side to the left, toward the water. You are not immediately adjacent to the water; there is a buffer of bushes and you can clearly hear the waves crashing below you and see the water in the distance over the dense foliage.

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Uphill 2nd shot from the 15th fairway

The best view of how much waving and rippling there is in the fairway can be seen in this shot, below, taken from the green looking back on fifteen.

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15th hole looking back from green

Hitting your approach shot long to the 15th hole is not recommended, as you can see the steep drop off behind the green.

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15th green as seen from behind


Planet Golf compares the terrain at Kawana to Turnberry, Mid Ocean and Pebble Beach. I've been lucky enough to play all three and agree that Kawana belongs in this small group of the world's most scenic courses. The difference at Kawana is that there is thick foliage between the edge of the cliffs and the course, but you can see the water from virtually the entire course.

Holes thirteen through fifteen are fabulous holes, as is the finish generally. Seventeen and eighteen both play uphill and are difficult holes. The only weak stretch of holes is eleven and twelve, which appear a bit out of character with the rest of the course. The Korai greens, a thick bladed (like bermuda) grass, are slow.

Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe stayed at Kawana on their honeymoon in 1954, and my sense is that the beds in the rooms are still the same ones. The resort is a bit dated, and the dining room has the ambiance of a corporate cafeteria, but if you are in Japan it is worth the two hour journey south of Tokyo to see this C.H. Alison beauty.

Since Kawana is a public course, it is the only way most people can play a course designed by Charles Alison, the maestro of golf course design in Japan. A round of golf at Kawana is ¥26,500 or about $265.

I would personally rank Kawana higher than #80 in the world.

Kawana's website



Two interesting photos from the late 1940s showing American soldiers at Kawana during the occupation. Note the American flag flying over the pool: