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The new way to sell golf in Japan

 Boring old white balls out. Ridiculous super happy fun cute balls in

By Christopher Johnson 14 April, 2011

There’s something about focusing on a little white ball that can relieve stress and anxiety -- two indicators that have certainly been at undesirably high levels in Japan since March 11.

With that in mind, we take a look at the weird world of selling golf in Tokyo and a few of the innovations that might make that beautiful walk in the countryside just a little more appealing.

In the typical Japanese golf club, balls don’t have to be white. Many local golfers prefer more “cute” colors, such as yellow, orange, pink or red.

“It really stands out on the green,” says Megumi Fukui, of Kasco, a Shikoku-based company that employs about 200 staff and which sells half a million balls every year.

Talking balls

The company made typical products like golf gloves for 50 years until realizing about five years ago that the balls could be more individual.

“Now there’s a boom in cute balls,” says Fukui. “The colorful balls are far more popular than the white ones.”

She says pink balls -- which cost about ¥1,500 for a pack of three -- are very popular with women. No surprises there, then. However, Kasco hopes a new fiery red ball that radiates sunlight will catch the eye of Japan’s more open-minded golfers.

Once out on the course, if you can’t afford a caddy, for ¥525 a month on your NTT Docomo phone bill, a keitai app called Shot Navi can tell you the distance to the green and what club to select.

It draws the fairway smarts from satellite photos and can access data from 99 percent of Japanese courses based on local knowledge about bunkers, water hazards and other nasties.

Though Shot Navi can’t read greens, slopes or wind conditions, it has become a pocket caddy for about 160,000 golfers in Japan since its introduction in 2008.

“People feel insecure without it, like driving a car without satellite navigation,” says Mina Murakami from manufacturer Par 72 Plaza.

Robotic perfection

Finding the perfect partner for matchplay also reveals a very Japanese solution. The Miya Robo-3DX robot can hit the ball straight down the fairway 450 yards every time -- give or take a few feet -- and that’s even longer and more accurate off the tee than Tiger Woods, or whoever is this week’s world number one.

“It’s perfect -- the same swing every time,” says George Hamada, international marketing director for Miyamae, which has been making robotic golfers for more than 20 years. 

The new robot, costing ¥12 million, has three turbo-motors to allow it to twist its wrist, arms and torso just like a human. We mere bags of flesh and blood are still needed to program the angle and head-speed of the club, though.

The robot also requires four “caddies” -- actually four people to truck it out to the driving range, where it might take 3,000 swings to test the durability of a new club for companies such as Mizuno, Yonex or Bridgestone.

But, the service at clubs in Japan, says Hamada, is far from robotic. “People at the golf clubs here in Japan are much nicer. They really know how to treat the customer.”

Next generation

René Theil, managing director of Hong Kong-based Pitchfix, is hoping to sell stylish little gadgets that fix divots and other marks that golfers leave on the course.

He says that a new generation of players is learning to repair divots and clean up after themselves on the greens and fairways, unlike the older generation who relied on caddies to bend down for them to pick the ball out of the hole.

He calls Japan the “biggest golf market in Asia by far,” with 3,200 outdoor courses, compared to about 300 in South Korea, even though there’s supposedly not much available land in Japan.

“When you fly out of Tokyo, you look down and there’s golf courses galore, in the mountains and everywhere else,” he says. 

While outdoor courses abound, Tokyo has several indoor “golf cafés,” where you can eat, drink and pretend you’re playing Turnberry or Pebble Beach by hitting a ball into a “virtual golf simulator” -- a screen hooked up to a computer.

Players hit a real ball with a real club, and the sensor analyzes swing and calculates the distance and direction as the ball travels down the course on the screen. 

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