Japan’s Kasumigaseki Country Club welcomed athletes from across the globe as host of the men’s and women’s 2020 Olympic golf events – only the second time in over a century golf has featured in the Games since Rio saw golf’s return to the Games in 2016 after more than a hundred years’ absence.
With Japan’s rich and colourful history in golf, the 2020 games were a great celebration of the sport.
Like Japan itself, Kasumigaseki Country Club is a heady blend of all things modern and traditional.
And while Kasumigaseki proudly showed off almost 100 years of its own unique heritage, it also showcased everything that is endearing and challenging in the modern game.
The 300-acre club, set among the forest of the Mushashino Hills 50km north-west of Tokyo, features two courses which became Japan’s first 36-hole complex in 1932, 3 years after they opened the East Course in 1929 after design work by some of its founding members.
British architect Charles Hugh Alison - whose global resume includes working with the legendary Alister MacKenzie – first visited the course in 1930, completing the upgrade work with a focus on the bunkering of the East Course, which hosted both the men’s and women’s Olympic tournaments.
Kasumigaseki is no stranger to international championships having hosted four Japan Opens (twice on the East Course and twice on the West Course). The East Course played host to the Canada Cup (now World Cup) in 1957 and the Japan Women’s Open in 1999. And the West Course was also the launching pad for newly crowned Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama’s international career when he won the first of two Asia-Pacific Amateur Championships in 2010.
But the face that Kasumigaseki showed the world this year was different, after major redevelopments in the past decade.
The overhaul was postponed in 2011 after the devastating earthquakes and tsunami that rocked Japan.
But when Kasumigaseki was announced as the Olympic golf venue in 2013, the master plan began in earnest with a vision to ensure it would deliver playing conditions worthy of the world’s best golfers.
This second redesign of the course was assigned to American’s Tom and Logan Fazio who set about three major changes.
Firstly, the turf grass was removed and the ground reshaped to build new undulations on both fairways and greens.
The second change was to the course’s length from 6995 yards to 7466 yards. The par of 71 was maintained, meaning it is now similar to many of the courses on the PGA Tour.
The third change was to modernise the two-green system used for so long in Japan to counter the extremes experienced in summer and winter conditions.
With technological advancement and greater understanding of sustainable course management, Kasumigaseki has found a variant of bent grass that has enabled a one-green system suitable year-round.
So, what did the golfing world witness at the 2020 Olympic Games?
The layout has only gentle undulations and is tree-lined throughout, not unlike many of the parkland courses that undoubtedly influenced Alison. Also, unsurprisingly, given his proximity to MacKenzie, there are some bunker complexes that have drawn comparisons to Melbourne’s famous Sandbelt courses on which he had such an impact.
The recent redesign has created many bunkers that were in play around 300 yards off some of the men’s championship tees and, while many of the fairways appear wide, sometimes only half of their width is usable for those wanting to attack with the next shot.
The Japanese Junior Championship was held as something of a “test event” in 2019, but so impressed was the International Golf Federation with the layout that only cosmetic changes to the fairway contours were made.
Dennis Ingram, an agronomist with the PGA Tour and for the IGF, visited regularly before Covid-19 restrictions. But he was onsite from May, becoming the conduit between the IGF and Kasumigaseki’s greenskeepers.
Using the scores of the 2019 Japan Junior Championship, the par-four 18th hole, at 500 yards, was the most difficult, followed by the par-four ninth, at 521 yards, with the par-four 12th next toughest at 499 yards.
Two of the three par-fives measure more than 600 yards, while three of the par-threes are longer than 200 yards.
Masao Koshi Director, Chairman of Public Relations Committee Kasumigaseki Country Club said such numbers would make many think the course would set up well for the longer hitters.
“You would think they would have the advantage, but with so many undulations on both fairways and greens, any golfer who can hit to a narrow target can make a good score,” Koshi said.
“Some of the fairways are 40 yards wide, but you can only use 20 of those yards because of the undulations.”
He said Kasumigaseki held a special spot in the hearts of all Japanese golfers, not only because of Matsuyama’s heroics but because of his compatriots’ similar success there in 1957.
“The Canada Cup was the first opportunity to broadcast golf on TV in Japan and on that week, luckily, two Japanese players (Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono) won both the individual and team competitions,” Koshi said.
“That really created the boom of golf in Japan - the number of players and courses really increased after this event.
“Japan now has the second largest number of golfers and the third most courses in the world … and it’s booming again now after the Masters.