Kasumigaseki’s East Course prepares to play host to 2020 Olympics

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 5, 2017, digital issue of Golfweek.

KAWAGOE CITY, Japan – It was raining steadily as we sped northwest out of Tokyo early Saturday morning on the hour-long drive to Kasumigaseki Country Club. A typhoon has just passed through, a fairly common occurrence here, but we were hopeful the weather would clear and allow us to get a good look at Kasumigaseki’s East Course, where the 2020 Olympic tournament will be played.

Kasumigaseki is one of Japan’s most exclusive private clubs, and I had been welcomed there thanks to my playing partners: Yoshio Terajima, a businessman and sometime music promoter; and Kunihiko Nishimura, an attorney with extensive dealings in the golf industry.

The men struck up a friendship a few years ago over their shared appreciation for jazz. Terajima, who has more energy at 76 than most men half his age, splits his time between Tokyo and Los Angeles. He recently had returned to Tokyo because he is promoting a Cuban jazz festival in the city this month. On the drive to Kasumigaseki, he tapped his hand and whistled to the energetic beat of Cuban jazz pianist Aldo López-Gavilán.

Kasumigaseki’s East Course opened in 1929, and within a year architect Charles Alison arrived to tinker with the design, particularly the bunkering. (Kasumigaseki’s West Course opened in 1932.)

Kasumigaseki briefly was commandeered by American troops following World War II, then returned to the membership. It hosted the 1957 Canada Cup, a precursor to the World Cup. The club also has hosted four Japan Opens and one Women’s Open. Hideki Matsuyama won the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship on Kasumigaseki’s West Course in 2010.

Kasumigaseki CC is member-owned, and some of the more senior members were “not so much interested in hosting the Olympic tournament,” general manager Hiroshi Imaizumi said through Shigeru Sekine, a businessman and 16-year club member, who hosted us and served as interpreter. They weren’t keen to the idea of losing the use of their club for an extended period or to the changes the Olympics will necessitate. Those alterations include building a media center on the practice range and converting the first and 18th holes of the West Course into a practice ground.

Kasumigaseki East Course’s 10th hole (Courtesy of Kasumigaseki CC)

We caught a break on the weather. The rain stopped by the time we arrived, giving way to a lovely, sun-splashed morning.

Tom and Logan Fazio completed renovations to the East Course a year ago. The biggest change was converting from a two-green layout to one green per hole. Two-green designs have long been a common Japanese tactic for dealing with the nation’s diverse weather. On two-green courses, each hole has a green seeded with a warm-weather grass such as Bermuda or zoysia, and a cold-weather grass such as bentgrass. The idea is to provide an optimal playing experience throughout the year. There has been a gradual shift away from the two-green design with the development of strains of grass that respond well in all climates.

Aside from the shift to one green per hole, the Fazios lengthened the course to 7,466 yards from 6,970, though that length likely won’t faze the Olympic competitors. As we passed the 632-yard back tee on the par-5 14th, Sekine noted that Matsuyama played the course recently and got home in two.

Imaizumi said the Fazios cut the number of bunkers in half, though those that remain truly are hazards – large, flashed up, and often pinching fairway landing areas and approaches to the greens.

The East Course is, like many in Japan, heavily treed, but the fairways are quite generous – perhaps too much so. My playing partners and I agreed that, among other things, the fairways probably will need to be narrowed and the rough raised substantially for the Olympics. Heavy summer rainfalls slowed the greens – another issue Olympic organizers might have to address in setup preparations. Imaizumi said there’s still some reticence within the clubs to hosting the tournament but that members are warming to it.

“The general atmosphere has started to change as the Olympics has come closer,” Imaizumi said through Sekine. “So the members are also very excited and have become very helpful (to Olympic preparations).”

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