INZAI, Japan — For an American wandering through Tokyo’s chaotic thoroughfares, there are a surprising number of signs in English. A McDonalds here, a Starbucks there. More strikingly, the word “GOLF” adorns many storefronts, including at some of the city’s busiest intersections.
Golf superstores are interspersed throughout the sprawling metropolis, a testament to Japan’s deep passion for the game. The nation has produced long developed world-class players on the men’s (most recently Hideki Matsuyama) and women’s (World No. 3 Nasa Hataoka) sides. It has more than 2,300 courses, more than half of all the tracks in Asia. It has a healthy golf equipment market—in addition to the TaylorMades and the Callaways, there are local brands you won’t find in the United States. The only thing Japan’s golf tradition has been missing is a premier tournament that attracts all of the game’s biggest stars.
Now it’s getting two.
This week’s Zozo Championship at Narashino Country Club marks the PGA Tour’s first official tournament in Japan. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan says the event finally came to be thanks to the latest move in the always-shifting tour schedule and the emergence of a critical sponsor.
In nine months, an even more global event arrives with the Olympics coming to Tokyo and the Olympic Golf Tournament being played at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
The Zozo is shaping up to be anything but a mere dress rehearsal. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas are among the marquee players competing this week; in total, 11 of the top 20 in the world ranking will tee it up in the 78-man field. Narashino appears to be in prime condition. Tickets have been sold out for some time, with one-day badges on secondary markets running north of $300.
“Japan has been a hotbed of golf even before I came on tour,” Woods told Golf Digest. “I played over here with Jumbo [Ozaki], Isao [Aoki], all those guys throughout the years. The culture is golf over here, and that’s not always the case around the world. It was new in Korea when I came out on tour, and now it’s not. It’s still new and developing in China. But Japan was one of the places that had their own tour and some great players.”
The general vibe around Narashino, beginning with Monday’s MGM Resorts The Challenge: Japan Skins, has been one of deep gratitude. Fans are overjoyed—honored, even—to be hosting the best players in the world. Tiger’s appearances in Tokyo on Sunday had a frenetic feel to them as enthusiastic onlookers eagerly soaked up a glimpse of Woods. Tickets to The Challenge were capped at about 2,500, meaning Tuesday was the general public’s first opportunity to come out to Narashino. And while it poured virtually all day, nobody seemed to care. Rain wasn’t going to ruin this parade.
“Yesterday blew me away,” McIlroy said. “It was windy and cold and wet, and I turned up to the golf course around noon and there were, I don’t know, thousands and thousands of people here. That sort of took me by surprise. They seem to really love golf.”
They love golf, and they love golfers. All of them, it seems. The crowds have been quite generous with their applause; hit it anywhere on the planet and you’re getting at least a few claps. They also don’t discriminate with who they support—on Monday, fans cheered as loud for McIlroy and Jason Day as they did for Woods and their countryman, Matsuyama. They’re here to show their appreciation for the performers they’re witnessing. Negativity has been non-existent.
“The people are just so nice. You don’t have any run-ins with fans,” said Justin Thomas, who is no stranger to run-ins with fans. He famously asked officials to remove a fan who yelled “get in a bunker” at the 2018 Honda Classic. “You never hear anything disrespectful. It’s so cool how honored they are to meet you, to take a picture with you, to get an autograph from you. Whether it’s a kid or an adult, it seems very genuine, which is really cool.”
Statistics suggest that participation in golf, like almost everywhere, has actually declined in Japan over the past two decades. But anecdotal data from this week, both in Tokyo and at Narashino, paints a different, more optimistic picture. This game is deeply woven into this country’s sporting fabric, and Monahan is hopeful that the Zozo and the Olympics can have a role in re-igniting the country’s interest in golf.
“I look at this as a really important moment and opportunity for us to make a meaningful contribution to the growth of the game here in Japan,” Monahan said. “That was part of the calculus for us being here in 2019.”
And, apparently, beyond. Says Monahan: “Our intention is to never leave Japan, to always have a PGA Tour event in Japan from this day forward.”
Japan’s golf fans will no doubt be grateful for it.