Big in Japan: the rising demand for Rees Jones’ pre-tournament surgery

  • Big in Japan
    Taku Miyamoto

    Taiheiyo Club’s Gotemba course hosts a Japan Golf Tour event each year

  • Big in Japan
    Rees Jones Inc

    Jones’ proposal for the fifth hole on the Asama course sees the introduction of new bunkering in the second landing area of this par-five hole

  • Big in Japan
    Rees Jones Inc

    The plan for the Asama course at Karuizawa Resort includes a complete rethink of green surrounds

Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

A portfolio of renovation work at US championship venues including The Country Club, Hazeltine, Torrey Pines and Bethpage Black saw Rees Jones inheriting his father’s title as the Open Doctor. Now, demand for his pre-tournament surgery is gaining momentum in the East.

Jones’ first project in Japan was completed in 2011, at Ibaraki Country Club near the port city of Osaka. The club’s West course had been selected to host the 2013 Panasonic Open and its members wanted an architect who they could trust to get the course tournament ready.

Jones says: “Ibaraki approached us to see if we would be interested in doing a complete rebuild of the existing golf course. The club had a proud history of hosting the Japan Open, but they had fallen out of the sequence.” 

“Over the years, tournament officials had determined that the course was becoming outdated for professional players,” adds Jones’ design associate Bryce Swanson. “The existing course layout had dual greens and the club wanted to convert to single greens with more strategic variety.”

Jones and Swanson added back tees for distance, reviewed bunker placements to provide players with different challenges and redesigned the greens with new angles and orientation, along with introducing chipping areas in their surrounds.

“We really tried to mix it up in terms of what was being asked of the golfers,” says Swanson. “Using the existing layout, we created a new course experience which resulted in a very exciting finish at the 2013 Panasonic Open.”

“The closing hole is a par five where they can make eagle, birdie or get in trouble,” says Jones. “It was very well received by all the players and the scores weren’t overly low. It’s a really good finish – the seventeenth is the hardest par three on the course – and it really made their muscles tighten.”

The club is now celebrating its 100-year anniversary and preparing to host its sixth Japan Open in October 2023.

Jones’ second project in the country (as featured in the January 2019 issue of GCA) was at Taiheiyo Club’s Gotemba course, southwest of Tokyo, in the shadow of Mount Fuji. There he worked alongside Hideki Matsuyama, a first course design project for Japan’s number one golfer. The course had previously hosted 2001’s World Cup of Golf, won by Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, plus an annual event on the Japan Golf Tour.

Jones says: “Just before we worked there, Hideki shot 23 under par to win the Taiheiyo Masters, but after we completed work the winning score was nine-under, so it’s now much more of a championship test.”

Gotemba has continued to host that event and in 2024, it will also be the venue for the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, the winner of which will receive both Masters and Open invitations.

Trips across the Pacific are now increasing in frequency for Jones and Swanson. A long-range master plan has been completed for Shizuoka Country Club’s Ogasa and Takamatsu courses, a composite of which are used for a Japan LPGA StepUp Tour event, and Taiheiyo Club owner Shun Han has brought them into another of the club’s locations, the 36-hole Karuizawa Resort in the central Gunma prefecture, to redesign the Asama course.

“One championship project has led to another,” says Jones. “They’re not building anything new in Japan. It’s all redos and upgrades; and they’re having to upgrade to get tournaments. They really care about their championship golf.”

When a course is being updated for tournament play, club members understandably wonder what that might mean for them. “They were worried that we were going to make it too hard for them,” says Jones, of their work at Gotemba. “But on opening day we were complemented on how much more the members enjoyed the golf course.

“We can make it more difficult for the pro by adding areas to the greens that allow pins to be hidden, and relocating bunkers so the average player can access the green effectively, but the pro would have a hard time getting close to the pin.”

Short grass is an important part of that formula too. “Drawing from our experience with tournament venues in the US, we were able to highlight that for really good players, bunkers aren’t necessarily a challenge,” says Swanson. “With the introduction of runoff and chipping areas around the green, that adds challenge for the good player because it forces them to make a decision.”

“The everyday golfer can putt it up from the chipping areas then two putt and be happy,” says Jones. “The best players want to get it close to the pin to save par. They now have to think about it because they can either putt it, hit it into the bank, or loft it.

“I always say you don’t build a church just for Easter Sunday. And I think that’s what we do best. Like at Torrey Pines, and other courses we’ve done in preparation for the US Open, it’s still very playable, manageable and enjoyable for the average player.”

The typical membership model in Japan – a relatively small annual fee plus a green fee for each play – means it is critical to get members coming back for more. Jones says: “It is important for the clubs and the owners to have a course that people want to play on a daily basis. And I think that’s what we’ve accomplished.”

Jones and Swanson have developed a good understanding of how their Japanese clients like to work. “We’re mindful of their respect for the landscape and the trees,” says Swanson. “Tree removal is geared towards agronomy and playability.”

Jones says: “We walk the course with them and explain everything we do thoroughly, so they understand what we’re talking about. The clients are very involved. It becomes a team effort because it is ultimately their facility.”

“It’s about taking the time to really get to know what they are looking for,” says Swanson. “For example, we understand what type of green contours they like. I would say it’s based on Japanese architecture – a little more subtle.

“At Ibaraki, they very much wanted to use our design philosophy. But at Gotemba, they wanted us to understand what the original architect Shunsuke Kato had done and to incorporate his design philosophy into updating the course for today’s players.”

“It was more of a restoration,” says Jones. “Kato was ill but before they announced that we were going to do the work, they visited him. He was very much on board with having us improve his golf course.”

Shizuoka has seen contrasting approaches; the Ogasa course moved from dual to single greens, while the Takamatsu (see the April 2022 issue of GCA) has retained the dual green and has more of a restorative feel. The result has been a more equal balance of member play between the two. “The hotel is booming and the whole place has been revitalised,” says Jones.

Construction is now underway at Karuizawa, again with the hope of elevating its potential for tournament play. “There hasn’t been any remodelling work since the 1960s,” says Swanson. “They now want to make sure they are putting their best foot forward. It’s single greens, but it’s a complete rethought of some of the tee locations, the fairway bunkering and the green surrounds. There’s a downhill tee shot on the par-four eighteenth, and we are going to completely rebuild the green complex with that possible tournament big-finish in mind.”

As with all his jobs in Japan, Jones has teamed with Hiromi Yanagisawa and Inaji Landscape & Construction Co. to ensure the final product is of the highest quality.

While advances in technology allow for effective remote working, Jones and Swanson will still make regular site visits. “Golf course architecture is one of those things that you really do need to do out in the field to be able to understand the space you’re dealing with,” says Swanson. “The ability to have a Zoom call has definitely helped. We do quite a bit with photos and video calls where the contractor will walk us through something that’s been shaped. When we do visit the site, we’re closer to being able to do final touches.”

Jones and Swanson expect to be completing their operation on Karuizama’s Asama course by the end of 2023, with an eye towards hosting tournament golf in the not-too-distant future.

This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.