The new way to sell golf in Japan

The new way to sell golf in Japan

Boring old white balls out. Ridiculous super happy fun cute balls in
Colored golf balls
Balls -- they don't have to be plain vanilla.

There’s something about focusing on a little white ball that can relieve stress and anxiety -- two indicators that have certainly been at undesirably high levels in Japan since March 11.

With that in mind, we take a look at the weird world of selling golf in Tokyo and a few of the innovations that might make that beautiful walk in the countryside just a little more appealing.

In the typical Japanese golf club, balls don’t have to be white. Many local golfers prefer more “cute” colors, such as yellow, orange, pink or red.

“It really stands out on the green,” says Megumi Fukui, of Kasco, a Shikoku-based company that employs about 200 staff and which sells half a million balls every year.

Talking balls

The company made typical products like golf gloves for 50 years until realizing about five years ago that the balls could be more individual.

“Now there’s a boom in cute balls,” says Fukui. “The colorful balls are far more popular than the white ones.”

She says pink balls -- which cost about ¥1,500 for a pack of three -- are very popular with women. No surprises there, then. However, Kasco hopes a new fiery red ball that radiates sunlight will catch the eye of Japan’s more open-minded golfers.

A visitor to a golf trade show examines her options.A visitor to a golf trade show examines her options.

Alternatively, for golfers with heavy-metal attitudes, a brand called “Crazy” offers golf bags and other accessories with Iron Crosses and violent black, gold or red trimming to help you stand out from the crowd.

And, once out on the course, if you can’t afford a caddy, for ¥525 a month on your NTT Docomo phone bill, a keitai app called “Shot Navi” can tell you the distance to the green and what club to select.

It draws the fairway smarts from satellite photos and can access data from 99 percent of Japanese courses based on local knowledge about bunkers, water hazards and other nasties.

Though Shot Navi can’t read greens, slopes or wind conditions, it has become a pocket caddy for about 160,000 golfers in Japan since its introduction in 2008.

“People feel insecure without it, like driving a car without satellite navigation,” says Mina Murakami from manufacturer Par 72 Plaza.

Robotic perfection

The Miya Robo-3DX robot knows all about the zone.The Miya Robo-3DX robot knows all about the zone.Finding the perfect partner for matchplay also reveals a very Japanese solution. The Miya Robo-3DX [PDF] robot can hit the ball straight down the fairway 450 yards every time -- give or take a few feet -- and that’s even longer and more accurate off the tee than Tiger Woods whoever is this week’s world number one.

“It’s perfect -- the same swing every time,” says George Hamada, international marketing director for Miyamae, which has been making robotic golfers for more than 20 years. 

The new robot, costing ¥12 million, has three turbo-motors to allow it to twist its wrist, arms and torso just like a human. We mere bags of flesh and blood are still needed to program the angle and head-speed of the club, though.

The robot also requires four “caddies” -- actually four people to truck it out to the driving range, where it might take 3,000 swings to test the durability of a new club for companies such as Mizuno, Yonex or Bridgestone.

But, the service at clubs in Japan, says Hamada, is far from robotic. “People at the golf clubs here in Japan are much nicer. They really know how to treat the customer.”

Next generation

René Theil, managing director of Hong Kong-based Pitchfix, is hoping to sell stylish little gadgets that fix divots and other marks that golfers leave on the course.

He says that a new generation of players is learning to repair divots and clean up after themselves on the greens and fairways, unlike the older generation who relied on caddies to bend down for them to pick the ball out of the hole.

He calls Japan the “biggest golf market in Asia by far,” with 3,200 outdoor courses, compared to about 300 in South Korea, even though there’s supposedly not much available land in Japan.

“When you fly out of Tokyo, you look down and there’s golf courses galore, in the mountains and everywhere else,” he says. 

While outdoor courses abound, Tokyo has several indoor “golf cafés,” where you can eat, drink and pretend you’re playing Turnberry or Pebble Beach by hitting a ball into a “virtual golf simulator” -- a screen hooked up to a computer.

Bright grips appeal to a new generation of young golfers.Bright grips appeal to a new generation of young golfers.Players hit a real ball with a real club, and the sensor analyzes swing and calculates the distance and direction as the ball travels down the course on the screen.

Golf and Bar Pivot near Don Quixote in Roppongi costs ¥7,000 per hour for a group of four until 11 p.m., and ¥8,000 thereafter.

Along Roppongi-dori, Golf and Bar Links Roppongi is a chip shot across the street from the Roppongi Hills tower. A group of four can hire a booth for ¥6,000 an hour until 11 p.m. or ¥8,000 afterwards.

Websites such as Tokyo Indoor Golf and Shibuya de Golf indicate where to learn indoors, such as at the Regina School in the basement floor of Shibuya 1-chome, which offers group lessons for four people every Monday, at a monthly rate of ¥12,600.

And should anyone decide to turn pro after all that, it might be nice to follow the lead of Japanese wonder-kid Ryo Ishikawa, who has pledged to donate all his 2011 tour earnings to help the relief efforts in the earthquake and tsunami zones of northeastern Japan.

Christopher Johnson is author of the novels Siamese Dreams and Kobe Blue. Visit his blog here.

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