What About Playing Golf in Japan and South Korea? – Why Not, So We Did It!
Tuesday, August 30
An almost perfect flight arrangement – K.C. to Denver to Tokyo with a 2 hour 30 minute layover in Denver – and free tickets! Not so fast – O’Hare once again screwed up our plans as our connecting flight from O’Hare was very late. So, ironically, we had to fly to O’Hare and All Nippon Airways (ANA) to Tokyo to arrive 5 hours late. My only advice to give – AVOID O’HARE if at all possible.
Wednesday, August 31
Arrive Tokyo/Narita at 8:30 p.m. Only consolation was the quite new Boing 777 was 30% full, so we got entire rows to stretch out and sleep many hours on a 12 hour flight. Excellent service.
Met with our tour arranger, Masako Takei 1 ½ hours until 2 a.m. she is the “Kim Chee of Japan.” Kim is David’s Malaysian girlfriend. Masako is attractive , an achiever, good broken English, excellent education with a Finance Masters from Boston University, C.P.A., former KPMG professional, and successful entrepreneur having started Esprit Golf Inc. several years ago. It designs inbound and outbound golf trips with a specialty being a yearly expensive trip to the Masters at Augusta for 20-40 Japanese.
Thursday, September 1
Our Japan golfing adventure started at the exclusive Tokyo Golf Club rated #4 in Japan and 96th in the world. Our excellent host, Mori Otaki, is a 62 year old retired Johnson and Johnson executive who last headed their large, Asian operation. He had spent eight years in Westchester County, New York, raising his twin daughters there.
This is a most attractive parkland layout with beautiful trees framing every fairway and green. They have two greens on each hole which are rotated. We played the reportedly rated toughest course which 5 years ago was redesigned by Gil Hanse. Condition excellent with quite narrow fairways and lush, challenging rough and numerous deep traps.
David shot a pretty satisfactory 85, taking into consideration the difficulty of the course, his initial round and poor driving – 6600 yards, par 72, slope unknown.
CWB has a sprained ankle which limits his distance, so will not keep scores sometimes. Did have 3 pars, including a 48 foot putt on a layout with no senior tees, 6150 yards, par 74, and little roll.
In typical Japanese style, we played a nine and then stopped for a good lunch. 600 members, no women. Clubhouse is designed by a Frank Lloyd Wright protégé and looks like vintage Wright. Dinner served only on special occasions. No swimming pool or tennis courts. Had a hot tub and then drove 1 ½ hours to our next destination.
Friday, September 2
Easy drive to Abiko Golf Club for a 9 a.m. start with Masako’s associate, Toshio Komatsu, who also is a tour guide for Southeast Asians visiting Japan. Abiko course was redone in 2012. Numerous deep traps. No surrounding homes. Rough fair.
David good round of 80 despite an 8 on the par 5 eighth. 6463 yards, par 72, 125 slope. CWB kept score as he played quite well for a 90. 4 ½ hour round – who said the Japanese play fast?!
Drove 3 hours through Tokyo, which is the most populous in the world and safest metropolitan area (38 million). Staying at the 5 star Hyatt Regency in Hakone. Huge, really hot, hot tub (108°) and outstanding French dinner. One of our nicest hotels.
Saturday, September 3
A pleasant day with several surprises. After a classic breakfast at the lovely Hyatt, we had a short drive to Hakone Country Club which lies in a crater in the middle of Fuji National Park. Founded in 1954, mountainous and lush forests (no houses) surround the beautifully manicured course with huge, fast greens.
Masako’s associate, Yoichi Shioki, was our playing partner. He just retired after 40 years with Bridgestone Tire with stints of eight years in Akron, Ohio, five years in Mexico, and seven years in Europe. 4 hour 30 minute round with traditional lady caddie plus the normal 45 minute luncheon break after the first nine.
David, another solid round of 42-39 with 34 putts on 6600 yards, par 72, slope 131. CWB the mid 90’s with ups and downs. Lovely day — 80°, light east wind, mainly sun. One of the most attractive courses we have ever played!
Two hour drive through the mountains to the historic Kawana Hotel and Golf Course opened in 1936 and their answer to Pebble Beach. Little has been done to upgrade the Hotel that reminds one of the Broadmoor and Greenbrier in the fifties. Few guests, almost shut down at 9 p.m. A good 5 course dinner in the Grill Room (David, Japanese; CWB, Western) with a delightful, always bowing waiter.
Everyone seemed surprised that we are driving ourselves and not getting lost. David and English-speaking GPS are a winning combination!
Sunday, September 4
A leisurely morning at the Kawana Hotel, including a full breakfast and climbing the observation tower which overlooks this lovely property and surrounding area. It is a shame that someone or entity has not purchased the Hotel, as it could be so special!
The afternoon brought a 3 hour 50 minute round on the Oshima Course, which has the most severe elevation changes that we have experienced. Holes with some magnificent ocean views. Course in surprisingly good shape considering the Hotel’s condition. David, another solid round of 78 on 5711 yards, par 70. CWB played about 70% of the course. We would style the course as a regular/executive/hillbilly layout.
Dinner in the main, dated dining room with very good food once again and a view of Mt. Fuji some 40 miles away.
Monday, September 5
What a round at the Fuji course at the Kawana Hotel rated #2 in Japan and #67 in the world. Terribly humid as the layout is right next to the Pacific Ocean, yet no hole goes over it. Very hilly so CWB extremely glad to have a cart and driver while David walked with his lady caddie.
David was as bad today on a tough course as he had been solid the last three rounds. He shot 100, adjusted to 92, lost 5 balls and took five shots in a greenside trap – 2 eights and an eleven! Amazingly, he kept his composure quite well. Played back tees at 6701 yards, par 72.
CWB enjoyed one of his best rounds, shot 89 with three pars and two doubles. The course has some favorable forward tees at 5490 yards, par 72. Because of the humidity we were exhausted at the end. Course in good shape and we came to understand the high rating, particularly in light of elevation changes and challenging traps.
The hotel was deserted but the marketing manager said it was doing well and September is a low season – very few international guests, maybe 5%. Sought our advice on how to market to international visitors. Next major project is not rehabbing the hotel but a sprinkler system for the Fuji Course. On to Osaka and Kobe (five hour drive, 250 miles, $102 tolls!) and the first class Hotel Okura Kobe. A delectable, expensive dinner in the traditional teppanyaki style.
Tuesday, September 6
Another new, interesting experience at Naruo Golf Club, suburb of Osaka, founded in 1920 and rated #3 in Japan and #90 in the world. Extremely humid, particularly on the front nine (2 hour 30 minute).
Most difficult course we have played – David, 6720 yards, par 70, slope 147, tough rough, numerous large traps with high lips for 89. CWB only played 12 holes and the heat really got to him on the back nine.
The golf cart moved on a track at the speed of a walk. It reminded CWB of the miniature train at the Lincoln Nebraska Zoo! And the lady caddie was by far the worst we have had, although she did try hard. So, you put all the circumstances together – difficult course, almost unbearable humidity, slow golf cart, weak caddie, slow play and you can see why CWB lost his cool somewhat on the seventh hole and David on about the fourteenth. We did regain our composure and finished a 4 hour 40 minute round.
Dinner at the Japanese Restaurant in the Hotel Okura. Please note how adventuresome CWB is becoming.
Wednesday, September 7
Two old sayings certainly apply to today’s round of golf – save the best for last and wait for a new day. The former applies to Hirono Golf Club and the latter to David’s game. We have played several outstanding golf courses here in Japan, yet there’s no doubt in our mind that Hirono is tops and richly deserves its #1 rating in Japan and #44 in the world. After two horrible rounds, David put it altogether at Hirono for a 40 (including a triple bogey) — 36 on 6454 yards, par 72, slope 135.
First of all, the clubhouse is the most attractive, although they all are dated and pale in comparison with most U.S. facilities. It appears that little has been done since the opening in 1936. The course is in the best shape and is fair as to the thickness of the rough and challenges of the bunkers. Fast greens. It also is quite walkable as they do not allow carts on the course! Even CWB walked until the 16th and 17th on his bum leg. Overcast and bearable with the sun out and humidity high on the back nine (reason why CWB skipped a couple of holes). No wind to speak about.
Played with member Mr.KN whose father is a Golf Magazine panelist. A good caddie is no wait 4 hour 10 minute round. Except for the triple at no. 6, David just played a solid game – two bad drives and one three putt. He obviously is elated with this near career round.
CWB started poorly and parred #9 for a 50. He played bogey golf on the back side before the heat got him. Senior or lady tees still tough as they were 5826 yards, par 72, slope 127.
On to Nikko Hotel at Osaka Kansai Airport for our flight tomorrow morning to Jeju Island, South Korea.
Rankings of Japanese Courses
|1. Hirono||1. Fuji|
|2. Fuji||2. Hakone|
|3. Hakone||3. Hirono|
|4. Abiko||4. Naruo|
|5. Naruo||5. Abiko|
|6. Tokyo||6. Tokyo|
|7. Oshima||7. Oshima|
Observations About Japan
– No tipping
– Few speak English and the few who do, not well
– Very homogeneous
– Follow the rules (please note John)
– Humidity, humidity
– Very polite
– CWB lost one ball and that on the last day on #16 where he hit his drive down the middle, decided not to play the hole and caddie did not retrieve the ball!
– No obesity
– Country runs efficiently
– Very high quality fresh food
– Two American chains – 7 Eleven and McDonald’s
– Saw no other American tourists
– Drove 719 miles – CWB – zero
CWB: 48 foot putt at Tokyo Golf Club
David: drive on hole #1 at Fuji in front of cameraman
Thursday, September 8
A 90 minute flight on Korean Air to Jeju Island and a short drive to The Club at Nine Bridges. Samsung Corporation built this world class resort in 2001 for $100 million, $40 million for the golf course rated #1 in Korea and #45 worldwide.
We enjoyed a very relaxing day. David spent much time researching and planning more of our trip. A typical Korean dinner at the lovely Club House. Our cottage is large and probably very expensive. You must stay at The Club in order to play the course.
Friday, September 9
A very satisfying day began with the weather (70°, light north wind, sun) at The Club of Nine Bridges, which dates back to 2001. A morning start with a cart on a trail and a good caddie, so there was considerable walking. The course is carved out of a forest on a lava bed and you never see another hole as you play. Great conditioning, reasonably fast greens with some undulation. A 4 hour 35 minute round played with Moon Sury Bon (Paul), a retired South Korean Air Force mechanic who is now a tourist guide.
David and CWB both had 86. David leaked some oil in the middle of the round but pulled it together on 6791 yards, par 72, slope 126.
CWB very happy with five pars, a birdie and one lost ball on helpful forward tees of 5200 yards, par 72, slope 119. The best course we have played thus far on our trip.
Drove all of 5 miles to the Podo Hotel where our rooms are very large with lots of natural light, on the mold of Frank Lloyd Wright and beautiful vistas.
Saturday, September 10
An 8 a.m. start at nearby Black Stone Country Club again with Paul Bon. This luxury resort also dates back to 2001 and is also created out of a lava field and forest. Very attractive and similar to Nine Bridges. Course not as mountainous, yet plays tough. Same type of cart arrangement but lady caddie better. In ten years of caddying, we were her ninth and tenth Americans! 4 ½ hour round in splendid weather.
After a triple bogey start and a double on four, David settled down nicely for 44-40 on 6557 yards, par 72, slope unknown but we think higher than Nine Bridges. CWB steady round on longer layout (5390 yards) with little roll. He ended with a sensational three wood to two feet on the #2 handicap 18th hole for a 91. We very much liked the course and its challenges.
After lunch at Black Stone, we toured the southern part of Jeju Island that is the size of Maui and an hour’s flight from Seoul. Jeju has a population of 600,000 with 50 million total in South Korea. It is attractive yet a little junkie along the coast. Tourist trade has gone through the roof in recent years. Many Chinese who do not need a visa for Jeju Island.
Outdoor barbecue dinner at the Podo Hotel. It isn’t CWB’s style of barbecue.
Sunday, September 11
David brought his A game and CWB his D game to Pinx Golf Club, our last stop on Jeju Island. Hazy, somewhat humid 72°, no wind on a 1999 layout that at one time was rated in the top 100 in the world. Wet, very soft fairways, so played long. Conditioning poor, except greens quite good. It is interesting to note how they in Korea largely do not repair ball marks on the greens or rake the bunkers. Pinx is the weakest of the three courses played in Jeju, although not a bad layout with some excellent holes.
A relaxed 4 hour 25 minute round. David played very well, except for putting. He hit 13 greens in regulation and 8 of 14 fairways. 36 putts and two doubles yet scored 78! On 6620 yards, par 72.
CWB a generous 94 on 5556 yards. The course plays tough for him as there are severe elevations and little roll. Good caddie.
We liked our short stay in Jeju. The accommodations were very satisfactory. All three courses top rated but we must rate them in the order of Bridges, Black Stone, and Pinx.
On to the mainland with our Asiana flight to Sacheon.
Monday, September 12
Another remarkable day began with rain in the Sacheon area and then a beautiful sunny afternoon as we arrived at the Pine Beach Hotel & Golf Resort. What a driver CWB has in David and his GPS! 2 ½ hours in rain much of the trip with only one mishap (missed turnoff). Very mountainous with many tunnels, some quite long. The Koreans like their speed cameras and speed bumps. Excellent toll roads which are about 20% the cost of Japan’s.
Pine Beach is located on a magnificent property very comparable or even better than our Pebble Beach. A deluxe resort with 27 holes, great vistas and views of the ocean, including some rock islands jutting out of the water (better than Turnbury).
The sixth hole on the Beach Course is perhaps the most spectacular we have played. Adjacent to the ocean, you hit over an inlet with trees on your left and large traps on the right of a gigantic green. David 208 yards, CWB 178 yards.
David, an adventuresome round starting 3 (41 foot birdie putt) 8, 3 and ending with a triple bogey. He hit 10 greens in regulation, had no three putts on perhaps the biggest greens we have played with pins placed in the back corner most holes, lost seven balls (three provisional) two putt greens from 93, 63, 72, 78 feet and shot 86 on a 4 hour 35 minute round, not including stops. 6846 yards, par 72, poorest caddie we have had.
CWB brought his A game and very pleased with 90, including pars on all 4 par 3 holes. It must always be remembered that CWB accepts a few sizeable gimme putts, has an occasional mulligan and always from the forward tees while David putts everything out.
The Pine Beach course is in the poorest condition by far that we have played. Starting with poorly manicured tees, fairways not mowed well, numerous divots in fairways, traps that are seldom raked and huge greens with many divots. It is a shame as this truly is a special layout, which we greatly enjoyed despite the lack of conditioning. Granted, there is much play, the course was full on a Monday when we played in a pretty isolated location and off season. The Koreans obviously love their golf and it is somewhat surprising they do not take better care of their courses.
Tuesday, September 13
A day of transition as we had gone west to play Pine Beach and now had to go back east to play South Cape Owners Club on Wednesday. South Cape was not available on Monday or Tuesday and it is reputed to be the best new course in Asia and perhaps the world. We obviously could not pass up such a great opportunity.
Arrived in the afternoon at this property on a craggy peninsula on a small island south of Sacheon. Its location and architecture are like you have never seen before nor probably later! Massive concrete (yes, concrete) structures with all the amenities of a deluxe hotel and spa. The views across the bay to the ocean and mountains are truly breathtaking.
Built in 2013 by fashion trade (rag) entrepreneur and golfing tragic Joe Bong Chung. You have to see it to believe it. Delicious steak dinner in the magnificent, almost private dining room.
Wednesday, September 14
Mr. Chung invited us to breakfast with Mrs. Chung. He sold his business three years ago at the age of 72 and built South Cape. Our guess is he has about the same amount of money invested ($100 million) as Nine Bridges. He is the sole owner and wants it to be the most expensive resort in South Korea. Very solicitous of our opinions before and after our round of golf.
The golf routing incorporates a staggering number of natural coves and bays. It certainly is one of the most striking coastlines in golf with dramatic elevation changes. For example, the first hole must drop a thousand feet. One could go on and on but you will be spared.
Conditions leave something to be desired and need 2-3 years to mature and rain (drought now). Will be in the top 100 in time and probably #1 in South Korea. Eleven raters from Golf Magazine were arriving the next day for their initial visit.
We played a leisurely round (5 ½ hours) with David good at the start and finish for 87 on 6492 yards, par 72, slope 132. CWB a solid first nine and up and down back side for 90 on 5524 yards, par 72, slope 126.
Two multimillion dollar spectacular tea houses on #7 and #15. Mr. Chung sent out hamburgers and french fries for us at the 15th.
All courses in South Korea and Japan should be played yet we liked the South Korean courses better. Except for Fuji, they all have better coastal views and vistas. Our South Korean rankings were in order: Nine Bridges, South Cape, Pine Beach, Black Stone, Pinx (one exception, David rates South Cape #1).
Chung was inspired by Julian Robertson and his two courses in New Zealand (Cape Kidnappers and Kauri Cliffs).
Before going back to Sacheon to spend the night, we told Mr. Chung of our impressions and took our time in cleaning up at the palatial spa – why not in such an outstanding spot?
Observations about South Korea by perhaps an uninformed or ignorant American.
– Lack of ability to understand or speak a little English, although most take several years in school
– It seems few Americans have traveled here or also in most of Japan. (Not many international types prevalent either.)
– Main claim to fame – great roads (tolls expensive in Japan, not in Korea)
– Very polite as we would anticipate
– Follow the rules, follow the rules
– Very mountainous
– Generous portions of food, not as good as Japan
– A round is an all-day event – no particular hurry, stops for lunch and tea houses on courses – 5 or 6 hours normal
– Do not fix divots on greens or replace divots on fairways
– Do not rake bunkers, although there are 2 rakes on each bunker
– Use of cart paths only slows the game. The Japanese way of lady caddie pushing cart with clubs is far preferable
– Wide variance in ability of caddies to help (like reading the greens or distances)
CWB limped through with sprained ankle – “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” – quite an endurance challenge for an 84 year old?
Weather: – Hot, very humid in Japan
– Quite delightful in South Korea – some haze, particularly in Seoul
– No rain during 12 rounds of golf with two drops on the tenth tee at Black Stone
Ease of getting around with driver David and the GPS. Only serious traffic was going into Seoul – stopped on toll road by police as we were going in the bus lane – no ticket.
Still amazed at lack of American or international types. Also, lack of people who speak English or speak it fairly well.
Such great courses and vistas spoil you as you come back to quite flat and well maintained courses in the U.S. What a magnificent golf itinerary planned out by David!! CWB once again “a guest in life” and enjoyed everything.
We were novelties/oddities/eccentric being Americans, an 84 year old and driving ourselves!
We ended our Asian Sojourn with two very enjoyable days of sightseeing in Seoul.