In the span of three weeks, Japan has hosted the biggest names in men’s and women’s golf. First, was the PGA Tour at the Zozo Championship, followed by the LPGA Tour at this week’s TOTO Japan Classic.
While Japan has been a fixture on the LPGA Tour’s schedule for decades, the PGA Tour hosted its very first event two weeks ago just north of Tokyo, where Tiger Woods’ historic victory attracted throngs of fans, many of whom saw the legend compete in person for the very first time. Crowds standing 15 deep lined entire fairways to catch a glimpse of the former world No. 1. If those crowds are any indication of the Japanese love of golf, imagine the potential turnout when Japan welcomes not just golfers but athletes from around the world for the 2020 Summer Olympics, slated to begin in Tokyo in August.
In nine months, golf will once again be part of the Olympic Games. It will be just the second time since the sport was reinstated in 2016 following a 112-year hiatus. To say the second time around has already gone more smoothly than the first can’t be overstated, as the International Golf Federations’ journey in preparing Kasumigaseki Country Club to host the games couldn’t be more different than it was in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games.
At this time four years ago, the Rio de Janeiro Golf Course was still under construction. The course designed by Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, with consultation from Amy Alcott, was challenged by delays, which pushed completion until Dec. 2015, just nine months before the Olympics were scheduled to begin. The test event didn’t take place until March, five months ahead of the competition.
“When we were in Rio, they had just opened it and there weren’t even yardage measurements at that time,” said Kerry Haigh, the Chief Championships Officer of the PGA of America and a member of the three-person Olympics set-up team that also includes the European Tour’s David Garner and the LPGA Tour’s Heather Daly-Donofrio.
“That’s certainly nice that the golf course is there and built,” Haigh added about Tokyo.
Regardless of the quick turnaround in Rio, Haigh and the IGF couldn’t have been happier with the results. At the end of week one, Justin Rose took home the gold medal with a winning total of 16-under par after 72 holes, which was the same score Inbee Park recorded to win the women’s competition. According to Haigh, the team’s ability to produce the same winning score was a benchmark of their success.
“You try and set it up so that it does play similarly for both and playing it in a way that tests both men and women’s golf games,” Haigh said about their plan in Rio and Tokyo. “We were happy with that and will try and achieve the same.”
Although the winning score was the same, the course was set up in a way to test both the men and women respective to their skill set. That’s the same plan the set-up team is following in preparing the course for the 2020 Olympics. The men will once again compete during the first week of the Olympic Games, July 30 – Aug. 2. The women will compete during the second week, from Aug. 5 – Aug. 8.
“The women’s [competition] will play shorter, but it’s not an exercise where we’re going to make sure the women hit the same clubs into the holes,” Daly-Donofrio explained. “We’re setting up for the best players in the world and are really looking at them as two separate competitions.”
Unlike the course in Rio, Kasumigaseki Country Club has been around for decades. Located an hour north of the Olympic Village, the club’s East Course will host both the men’s and women’s competitions. Constructed in 1929, it underwent its first renovation the following year at the hands of C.H. Alison. In 2016, Tom Fazio performed a second renovation which stretched the course to more than 7,400 yards. Kasumigaseki Country Club is a large facility, which features 46-holes and has ample space to accommodate the infrastructure that comes with hosting one of the biggest events in the world.
“It’s a picturesque golf course, a lot of trees, some water, but not too much water. I think it will be a wonderful test for the Olympics,” Haigh said.
In August, a year ahead of the Games, the Japan Junior Golf Championship was held at the club as the designated test event. It was the first time the set-up team was on-site to see the course in person. It was an opportunity to consider everything from the weather, to the grasses, to volunteer support, to restroom locations. Although it was one of the few times the set-up team will see the course ahead of the Olympic Games, Dennis Ingram, an agronomist with the PGA Tour, has been living on-site periodically over the last year and regularly communicates areas of concern with the team.
“Made a few tweaks to the golf course in terms of some of the fairway contouring, but overall we were delighted with what we saw,” Haigh said about the test event. “It was a great way for us to make some adjustments to the current plan and hopefully make it so it’ll be more fun, more enjoyable and a more interesting test of golf for the best players in the world when they come here next year.”
When asked what the toughest test will be at Kasumigaseki Country Club, Haigh and Daly-Donofrio are in agreement that it could be the weather. Temperatures in Tokyo average around 88 degrees Fahrenheit during August, with high humidity. It’s an atmosphere Haigh likens to the PGA Tour playing in Louisville, Kentucky where the PGA Championship, Senior PGA Championship and Ryder Cup have been staged. And it isn’t that dissimilar to what the LPGA Tour experiences competing in Thailand and Singapore. But there are other sports in which athletes aren’t conditioned to compete in those high temperatures. In response to the forecast weather, the venue for the Olympics marathon has been moved 16 hours north of Tokyo to the town of Sapporo.
“There’s plenty of places where they play where it’s hot, very hot, very humid and the athletes are used to it,” Daly-Donofrio said about players on the LPGA Tour. “It will be a challenge, but I think it’s nothing our athletes can’t handle.”
Daly-Donofrio says the IGF Medical Commission has developed heat-mitigating guidelines for both players and spectators to address the expected temperatures, which she anticipates will include additional water filling stations, misters, shaded areas and cool towels for players.
And with heat comes thunderstorms. During the test event in August, Haigh says they experienced multiple suspensions due to storms in the area. For the Olympic competition, the plan is for the small field of 60 men and 60 women to have their rounds completed by mid-afternoon, in hopes of avoiding impending storms. But the heat won’t just be taking its toll on the players. Haigh anticipates a challenge over the two weeks of competition in being able to maintain the putting surfaces, which are made of bentgrass and thrive in cooler temperatures.
“You’re basically struggling to keep the greens alive,” Haigh said about the conditions they’re expecting in August. “It’ll be a good test, but I think there’ll also be some scoring opportunities because of the potentially softer conditions they may find with the greens. But we should wait and see, it all depends on the weather.”
The set-up team will arrive in the final days leading up to the opening ceremony on July 24 and stay through the duration of the two weeks of competition. With LPGA Tour events well attended year after year, and the PGA Tour’s first foray in Japan also a success, it’s a precursor to the growing anticipation for the Olympic competition, which Daly-Donofrio expects will be sold out.
“They have a great appreciation for the game in Japan, so I expect the crowds to be big,” said Daly-Donofrio. “They’re such a golf knowledgeable country and they have world-class players from their country, so they’re going to definitely come out and support.”