9 March 2012

Japan Golf Personalities: Kazumi Watanabe

In this interview we are privileged to speak with Kazumi Watanabe whose career has taken him to such prestigious positions as President of MacGregor Golf Japan, Fila Japan, Acushnet Japan (Titleist, Foot-Joy & Cobra) and a posting as Director General of the Japan Golf Tour Organization!
What's in the Bag?

Driver:     Cobra 10 degree loft,
Fairway:  #3, #5 and #7, Buffler
Irons:      Cobra Forged 6i-PW,
Wedges: Bob Vokey 48, 54, 58
Putter:    Scotty Cameron Mallet
Ball:       Titleist Pro-V1 and VG

What's your favorite course in Japan and the world?

I have five in Japan and Three in the world actually, although I have not had the pleasure of playing Augusta!
In Japan: Kawana, Lakewood (East), Higashi Hirono, Ishioka G.C., Bonari Kogen
In the world: Augusta National (not played), Pinehurst No.2, Kapalua Plantation Course

If you could play only one more round of golf in your life...who would you choose to make up your dream foursome and why?

First, I'd select Tom Watson because for me he is the most respectable professional golfer there is. Next, Ginjiro Nakabe because I loved his style of golf as an amateur both in manner/etiquette and skill. And to fill out the four-some I'd choose Nancy Lopez because she is a person of passion with a warm heart.

Watanabe-san, I would like to thank you for taking time to visit with us. You have had a long and successful career in the Japan golf industry. What brought you to the game and how old were you?

My pleasure. Well, the university I attended had an 18 hole golf course in the campus but I never played there as I thought I could not afford it. Believe it or not, I only started playing at the age of 42 when I was recruited by MacGregor Golf Japan as their president! I had no choice but to take up the game as it was a part of my job. My first full round score was astronomical 147! This won me the booby prize in the Golf Digest Competition I was playing in and served as my lackluster inauguration to the game of golf.

What was your impression of the game before that?

Even though I was not a golfer until the age of 42, I used to enjoy reading a weekly essay in Japan Economy Journal by the late Mr. Takeaki Kaneda a renowned golf critic and was intrigued by episodes relating to the game of golf. In those early days while I worked for AMF, I was engaged in importing and selling Harley Davidson golf carts to the golf courses all over Japan. I was also involved in marketing Ben Hogan golf clubs in Japan. So I guess the game of golf was inching ever closer to me through my job experience. Walk us through your career path and explain how it happened. As I touched on earlier, I guess I was destined to be associated with golf through my work, not really motivated by any particular wish to play. It was an inevitable encounter. However, it did not take long for me to become fascinated by game and I still remain so today.

What was the most challenging position for you?

Well, in retrospect, Japan Golf Tour Organization (JGTO) Director General was a tough job because I was tasked with contributing to the promotion of Japan Golf Tour. Working with tournament sponsors as well as to the public was quite different from crunching numbers and selling golf equipment, as you can appreciate. Another issue I needed to focus on, but was somewhat unfamiliar with, was the globalization of the Japan Tour such as co-sanctioning tournaments with major tours like US PGA, European PGA and Asian Tour. This still is an imminent and important issue for the JGTO if Japan wants to play a key role in the International Federation. It was a very challenging, but rewarding position for me.

What do you feel is different about the Japanese golf market in comparison with international markets?

First of all, Japan is perhaps the world's most sophisticated golf equipment market (with the exception of golf balls) where innovative club design, new materials, new manufacturing technologies and concepts have been historically developed. Driving this is the Japanese golfers keen desire to try new clubs in an endless search to literally improve their shots with their wallets! Second, golf equipment is distributed to the market dominantly through downtown big-size chain operators, unlike the United States or Europe where green grass pro-shops still play a major role in the process. In the last 10 years or so, major brands from the USA such as Titleist, TaylorMade and Callaway are increasing their market share in Japan while keeping abreast of Bridgestone and SRI Sports.

Who was your golfing hero growing up?

I was first fascinated by Bobby Jones and later by Jack Nicklaus. Jack once became the owner of MacGregor Golf when I was the president of its operation in Japan. I had the pleasure of spending many days with Jack when he visited Japan while playing in tournaments and exhibition matches or designing golf courses. Consequently, I grew to respect him as a golfer, but as a businessman in those days...well I'm not so sure? I am reluctant to make any comment.

Just last month the Taiheyo group went under. What do you think the Japanese golf industry and market needs to break its current downward spiral?

As recent statistics show, more than 60% of the 2,400 golf courses here in Japan generate deficit every year and over 30% have changed ownership due to financial problems. On the other hand, 80% of the total rounds played here in Japan are by golfers over 50 years old! Younger generations tend not to take up golf. There has been negligible effort made by any golf associations, organization or NPO in promoting golf to ordinary kids except for limited number of privileged junior golfers. In 20 more years or so, the total number of rounds played will shrink down to less than 50 million from existing 89 million a figure that was once well over 100 million here in Japan. Japanese clubs need to begin to think outside the box and be more fluid in these changing times, perhaps allowing for easier access to their clubs for all players including Jr's, beginners and even foreign or non-resident golfers.

Tell us about your current challenges?

I would say that my toughest challenge now is to promote inbound golf tourism to Japanese golf courses. As an example of how far behind Japan is in this area; in Turkey there are currently only 18 golf courses in the nation with 14 of them are located in a small town of Belek. And yet Turkey is world's fourth largest golf destination after Spain, Portugal and Thailand if I understand the statistics right! This is shocking and should serve as a wake up call for the industry here. Japan with its 2,400 golf courses should be able to attract more inbound golfers from abroad if proper measures are taken to actualize a breakthrough to this multi-billion dollar market. However, we are currently challenged with three adverse factors slowing the facilitation of this. One is the yen's appreciation due to external factors like the Euro zone crisis; next would be last years natural disasters including the nuclear meltdown and lastly, simply the reluctance and fear of change.

You are currently an advisor for Lakewood Corporations four courses. Tell us about Lakewood's premier course Lakewood G.C.

First of all, Lakewood G.C. with its full 36 holes is uniquely located adjacent to metropolitan Tokyo featuring beautiful views of Mt. Fuji, Hakone and the Tanzawa mountain range. Hot springs in Hakone and Atami are just within an easy 30 minutes drive from the course. Lakewood G.C.'s president makes great effort to ensure the course is always immaculately maintained and manicured. This pristine course condition, proximity to Tokyo and exclusive private VIP facilities are unparalleled. Our Kohantei clubhouse offers VIP's a completely private experience offering unparalleled security and an environment some clients prefer. Lakewood G.C. and two other Lakewood courses, one in Yamanashi and one in Gunma prefecture, are all exclusively designed by famed architect Theodore (Ted) Robinson. He is credited with designing such masterpieces as Ko Olina G.C. in Hawaii, a course named one of Play Golf America's Top 100 by the PGA of America.

How can I get a tee time?

Historically a private club, our membership still get first crack at tee times, but beyond that, guests are welcome to come experience the course pending availability. The possibility also exists to rent the whole course for special events on Mondays when the course is normally closed for maintenance. Perfect for hosting private, group or corporate events. We would like to welcome more foreigners out to try the course and have created English settings to help facilitate this. For availability just fill out a reservation request form on our Preferred course listing here on GIJ. Mention Bennett's feature and receive the best possible rate available, guaranteed!

Watanabe-san, Thank you for taking time to speak with us today. You continue to be an inspiration to those around you and I'm certain that your many years of hard work have left a lasting positive effect on the industry. It was an absolute privilege to have been able to interview you.

Bennett Galloway, 7 March 2012    

Previous Columns
  • Three Strikes for the Japanese Golf Industry
  • Get the most out of your balls..!
  • A Grand Opening in Niseko, Japan
  • The Mystery of Miura
  • Asia's Sleeping 'Tiger' Awakes
  • A Pebbles' Throw from Tokyo
  • Golf in Niseko, Asia's Answer to Whistler
  • Game On!
  • Japan Golf Tours
  • Gearing Up for Winter Golf
  • Respecting Your Game
  • Adrift in a Sea of Golf Balls
  • The Secret to Scoring Well "Shhh.....Don't Tell Anyone"!
  • Hakone, the Gem of Kanagawa and a Resort Golfers Paradise
  • Golf in Japan: A primer to golfing in Tokyo
  • Time to thaw out that golf swing
  • Golf made easy

    Special Features
  • A Qualifying Success
  • World Record Attempt Report
  • About Bennett
    Bennett is a long time resident of Japan and the Director of Golf for Gotemba Golf Club and Belle View Nagao G.C., in Shizuoka near Mt. Fuji. Member of the Golf Writers Association of America and a teaching professional, providing lessons for all ages and abilities, in English or Japanese. He also specializes in in-bound golf tours to Japan with Golf Shizuoka and Golf Hakone.

    Contact Bennett »