A different approach: Golf in Okinawa
Failing at golf in a beautiful, outdoor setting feels so much better than shanking 5-irons in front of a computer screen with a bucket of balls and some local champion in a Tiger Woods wardrobe at your side.
Which is why I’ve chosen the Kise Country Club (KCC) in Okinawa to make my not-so-triumphant return to the game.
The rolling greens of this championship course carpet a coastal nook on the western side of the main island of Okinawa Honto with enough trees, sand traps and water hazards to keep your ball from getting onto the green, and enough pleasing views of the East China Sea to keep you calm in the face of yet another bad break.
I arrive at KCC for a 6:45 a.m. tee time with my wife, Katie, in tow. She hates mornings, but loves the idea of driving a golf cart.
She’s also fascinated by the role of the caddy, although she knows even less about this game than I do. (Flashback to 6:25 a.m., hotel room, Ritz-Carlton Okinawa: “Ok, we better get you out on the court, mister.")
The clubhouse staff welcome us with friendly smiles and bows, then start asking questions that would disarm me at any time of the day, in any setting.
"Do you need a stiff shaft?" inquires Kazuki Inada, who has worked at KCC for eight years.
“Um, why would I need a stiff shaft?” I reply.
Inada explains the difference between a stiff (steel) and regular (graphite) shaft, something I probably should have looked up online before I arrived. I opt for regular.
“What’s this course like, by the way?” I ask after Inada hands me my clubs.
“Easy,” he replies. “It has long holes.”
We zip along a path to the first hole on the nine-hole Ocean Course (the remaining nine are on the Woods Course). The grinding sound of cicadas and mocking caws of crows fill the air as I take my first swing of the morning.
Relax and swing. Then relax some more
According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), about 6 million people head to Okinawa annually. Only about 5 percent of the islands' visitors come from abroad.
JNTO representative Mamoru Kobori says the island chain’s “world-class golf courses” attract some in this bunch.
“We can safely say Okinawa has almost everything to be recognized as Asia’s premier marine resort island,” he says.
Golf commentator and course consultant Masa Nishijima says players who travel to these islands come for more than just the game.
“They feel the charm of the climate and enjoy the country dishes of Okinawa,” he points out.
Nishijima notes that while Japanese golfers sometimes jet to other tropical locations in Asia to play, that’s changing.
“They can now get to Okinawa for less because of the spread of low-cost air carriers,” he says. “The Naha Golf Club, the Southern Links Resort and the Kise Country Club on the main island are good.”
Good, yes, but some would argue the best of Okinawa’s nearly 30 courses aren’t on par with the top locations found elsewhere in Japan.
But Itaru Osaka of Hiroshima, who I meet halfway through my round at KCC, says they offer a less structured and more relaxed atmosphere.
“I like the view,” he tells me, looking out over the fairway at the sea, which shimmers in the distance. “Plus we can drive onto the fairway with the carts. And we don’t have to take a rest. Usually, we have to take lunch and wait an hour.”
Another player I encounter along the way, a Mr. Tachikawa, calls the rules at some courses “strict” and “stupid.” He’s obviously racing through his round, so I let him play through.
“This course is number one. You picked the best one,” he says over his shoulder. “It’s easy.”
The course might be easy for Tachikawa, Inada and Okinawa’s famous export, Ai Miyazato of the LPGA, but for novices like me, it’s a challenge.
The holes are by no means the longest in Japan (the 964-yard seventh hole at the Satsuki Golf Club in Sano holds that honor), but the fairways feel like a haul, the sand traps are sinister and the water hazards are hungry enough to swallow three of my balls.
But the setting and the experience make all the difference.
When I feel hot and sweaty walking the fairway, the sea breeze quickly cools me off. When I feel frustrated by my performance, I stop to soak in my surroundings, from the lush vegetation to the turquoise waters of the East China Sea.
When it’s all over, I retire to the pool at the neighboring Ritz-Carlton Okinawa, which overlooks the sixth hole (see above), and watch the action from a deck chair. Time passes and I get up to wander through the adjacent library to scan the titles on the shelves: Golf Course Architecture, Turf Irrigation Manual, My Story by Jack Nicklaus, A Golfer’s Life by Arnold Palmer.
Palmer once said golf is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.
I can’t say I agree. But at least in a beautiful place like Okinawa, he sounds about half right.
Kise Country Club, 1107-1 Kise, Nago, Okinawa; +81-980-53-6100; www.kise-cc.jp. Green fees from ¥15,000 (US$170) per person.
Ritz-Carlton Okinawa; 1343-1 Kise, Nago, Okinawa; +81 980 43 5555; www.ritzcarlton.com/Okinawa