Matsuyama’s golf triumph is also Japan’s

Last Monday, a rumour swirled among Tokyo bankers that CVC’s $20bn private equity buyout proposal to Toshiba had been quietly cooked-up on a golf course.

If true — and, while plausible, there is no evidence — it would nevertheless have ranked a distant second among Japan’s most engrossing golf stories of the week. Nothing, of course, could top the triumph of Hideki Matsuyama in becoming the first Japanese player to win The Masters.

Several moments stood out amid the great fizz of joy uncorked by the 29-year-old’s victory and the jubilation that, at long last, Japan’s best really was the world’s best. There was the desperation of interviewers as they attempted to prise words of delight from one of the world’s most laconic sportsmen. There was the much-tweeted footage of Matsuyama’s caddie returning the flagpole to the 18th hole and bowing in respect to the course.

But most telling were the sobs of the Japanese golf commentators. Veteran broadcasters were so choked with ecstasy that they blubbered the word sumimasen, or sorry, as the game’s final scenes played out.

Those tears, in all their spontaneity, genuineness and relief, felt like they belonged to the entire sport of golf in Japan — a pursuit into which the nation has diverted the sort of money, ingenuity, time and perseverance normally reserved for wars or weddings. The overwhelming sense was that while Matsuyama’s triumph was his, it was also something both deserved and overdue for Japan.

Consider how devotedly the world’s third-biggest economy has chipped and putted towards this outcome. After a slow start in the early 20th century, Japan’s golf addiction soared in tandem with its economic rise from the 1970s, reaching an acme of participation and expenditure just after the bubble burst in 1991. The government clocked the notional number of Japanese golfers that year (many will not have actually played a proper round) at about 18m.

Participation is well down from the levels of that era, but private equity funds still see huge opportunity in the growing ranks of retiree golfers. One recent report calculated that the number who played at least one round in 2019 was still almost 6m, or 5.5 per cent of the adult population.

Significantly, in an economy where the revenues from many leisure activities are in decline, golf has held steady for almost a decade, with players and equipment sales rising in 2019 and a reported 170,000 new players taking up the sport in 2020, despite the pandemic. Although some 200 courses have closed in the last decade, Japan still has 3,100 across 2,227 facilities, placing it second in the world after the US.

What such statistics fail to capture is the formidable force of will behind Japan’s love affair with golf. There is the very existence of those 3,000 courses in a country which is about three-quarters mountain and the rest either intensively farmed or urbanised. Construction was only part of the challenge.

Byzantine land laws required would-be operators to navigate dark labyrinths of legalese and lobbying to convince small and often fabulously ornery landowners to lease the plots necessary to build the courses. Just as awesome is their flawless maintenance, given the way that the natural world, with belligerent fertility, seems to do all it can in Japan to ruin a pristine fairway. 

For those who adore the sport, there is also the act of will in pursuing a hobby that remains expensive and where courses are often a considerable distance from where most people live, requiring brutally early morning starts to make the tee-time.

Finally, there are the extended acts of will required of many Japanese — both players and their families — of pretending to be OK with a thief of time that feels deliberately crafted to disguise work as leisure. For those obliged to devote weekends to clients and bosses, it is a burden. For those complicit in such obligations, golf can look a lot like power abuse.

The joyous tears of the commentators were undoubtedly shared with a great many other Japanese who have waited for a Matsuyama to emerge and knock in that final, championship-winning putt. Having paid such stupendous dues, it was high time Japan received from golf what it was owed.

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