Last Monday, a rumor circulated among Tokyo bankers that CVC’s $ 20 billion private equity buyback proposal to Toshiba had been quietly concocted on a golf course.
If that were true – and, while plausible, there is no evidence – it would still have ranked as the second most gripping golf story in Japan of the week. Nothing, of course, could match Hideki Matsuyama’s triumph in become the first Japanese player to win the Masters.
Several moments stood out amid the great spark of joy that the 29-year-old won and the jubilation that, finally, the best in Japan was truly the best in the world. There was the desperation of the interviewers as they tried to reward the words of joy from one of the world’s most laconic sportsmen. There was the highly tweeted images of Matsuyama’s caddy bringing the mast back to the 18th hole and bowing to the course.
But most telling were the sobs of Japanese golf commentators. Veteran broadcasters were so choked with ecstasy they cried the word Sumimasen, or sorry, as the final scenes of the game unfold.
Those tears, in all their spontaneity, authenticity and relief, felt like they belonged to the whole sport of golf in Japan – a pursuit into which the nation hijacked the kind of money, ingenuity, time. and perseverance normally reserved for wars or marriages. The overwhelming feeling was that if Matsuyama’s triumph was hers, it was also something both deserved and expected for Japan.
Consider how the third largest economy in the world has shown dedication and invested in this outcome. After a slow start in the early 20th century, golf dependency in Japan exploded alongside its economic boom in the 1970s, peaking in participation and spending just after the bubble burst in 1991. The government recorded the notional number of Japanese golfers that year. (many will not actually have played an appropriate turn) at around 18m.
Participation is well below the levels of that time, but private equity funds still see a huge opportunity in the growing ranks of retired golfers. A recent report calculated that the number of played at least one trick in 2019, it was still nearly 6 million, or 5.5% of the adult population.
Significantly, in an economy where incomes from many leisure activities are declining, golf has remained stable for almost a decade, with players and equipment sale up in 2019 and 170,000 new players entered the sport in 2020, despite the pandemic. Even if some 200 courses have closed over the past decade, Japan still has 3,100 out of 2,227 installations, ranking it second in the world after the United States.
What these statistics fail to capture is the tremendous force of will behind Japan’s love affair with golf. There is the very existence of these 3,000 courses in a country which is about three quarters of the mountain and the rest is either intensively cultivated or urbanized. Construction was only part of the challenge.
Byzantine land laws required would-be farmers to navigate dark mazes of jurists and lobbying to convince the often fabulously ornate small landowners to lease the plots needed to build the courses. Equally impressive is their flawless upkeep, given how the natural world, with belligerent fertility, seems to be doing all it can in Japan to ruin a pristine fairway.
For those who adore sports, there is also the act of will in the pursuit of a hobby that remains expensive and where the courses are often a considerable distance from where most people live, requiring departures abruptly early in the morning to make the start.
Finally, there are the prolonged acts of will required of many Japanese – both gamers and their families – to pretend to be okay with a time thief who feels deliberately designed to disguise work as leisure. For those who are forced to devote weekends to clients and bosses, it is a burden. To those who are complicit in such obligations, golf can look a lot like an abuse of power.
The commentators’ tears of joy were no doubt shared with a large number of other Japanese who waited for a Matsuyama to emerge and strike in that championship-winning final putt. Having paid such extraordinary dues, it was high time that Japan got what it owed from golf.