NARITA, Japan – On a muggy, overcast morning an hour’s drive west of Tokyo Sept. 8, Tom Watson stepped to the first tee and struck the opening drive of the inaugural JAL Championship. The moment itself was unremarkable, but hardly insignificant. It marked the conclusion of a sometimes tortuous, five-year process to bring the first PGA Tour-sanctioned event to Japan, the world’s second-largest golf market.
When the PGA Tour first was approached about bringing a Champions event to Japan, Miller Brady, the tour’s senior vice president and chief of operations, freely admits, “I didn’t think it was viable.”
His perspective changed 18 months ago, when he traveled to Tokyo to try to seal a deal with JAL Airlines to be the title sponsor.
“The best part was we got to the end (of our presentation), and they stood up and started clapping,” Brady recalled.
That response signaled JAL was on board as title sponsor, at least for this year. JAL decided to test the waters, then reassess after the tournament whether to renew its sponsorship for 2018 and beyond.
Massy Kuramoto – chairman of the PGA of Japan, which runs the Japanese seniors tour – was less enthusiastic, according to Brady.
“He was afraid that we were going to interfere with his current events,” Brady said.
Kuramoto, who is playing in the JAL Championship, ultimately agreed to move an event to free up space for the visit by PGA Tour Champions.
The Champions players have been enthusiastic ambassadors since arriving Sept. 4. The only downside has been the 90-minute bus ride each day from The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo to Narita Golf Club and back. But the players are sucking it up and saying all the right things.
“This is awesome over here,” said Scott McCarron, making his first visit to Japan with his wife, Jenny. “Tokyo – the city is phenomenal, it’s so clean. We walked around last night and (visited) the shops and went and had dinner. It’s one of the cleanest, safest cities I’ve ever been in. Loved it. People are so friendly and nice. I’m really impressed. It’s not what I thought it would be.”
“I like Japan. I like the way people treat you with respect,” said Tom Watson, who has been visiting and playing in Japan since the mid-1970s. “They understand the game. The way they treat you outside the game is really special. We could take a great lesson from this in America.”
Narita Golf Club?
“It’s in great shape,” Kevin Sutherland said after opening with a 7-under 65 to take a share of the lead. “It’s not even just good shape, it’s in great shape. So as a result of that, it lends itself to some good scoring.”
Some of the players are less enthusiastic about a design quirk – strips of rough slicing through the middle of four of Narita’s fairways – but the conditioning has drawn raves. “It’s like nobody has played golf here for, like, six weeks,” said Todd Hamilton.
In retrospect, it’s striking that the PGA Tour never has sanctioned an event in Japan given the size of the golf market and the robust business climate. Hitoshi Takakuwa of Japan’s Global Golf Media Group, called the JAL Championship a “historic event,” in part because of the nature of the Japanese culture.
“We are a very closed (society),” Takakuwa said. “The Japanese don’t like other companies to come (here). That’s our (nature), not only in golf. . . But as a golf fan, as a golf reporter, I think we need them even more.”
The first step toward bringing more Tour events to Japan involves getting JAL to extend its sponsorship commitment. That seems likely. Kazuyuki Hijimoto, JAL’s vice president of advertising, said through an interpreter that JAL “would like to continue for multiple years.”
Once the tournament ends, JAL has 45 days to renew its sponsorship. Hijimoto said the company will survey its customer before making a final decision.
“The decision-making for an event is more difficult (in Japan) because they’ve got to get their entire executive team to support it,” Brady said.
Still, he seems confident the Tour will get the answer it wants from JAL. Over the past few days, Brady has been telling people at Narita Golf Club, “I expect that we’ll be here a long time.”