The Japanese phenomenon of park golf

  • Lovely Golf Course

    A busy day at Ichigaharo Park Golf Course

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    Bunkers and water features are prominent on many park courses

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    Mizoho scooping up her 'ace' on the seventeenth hole of the match at Shiraoi Park Golf Course

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    Quinn Thompson (front right) with a group of ‘parkers’

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    ‘Parkers’ playing on an elevated green

By Quinn Thompson

The Japanese ‘salaryman’ pushed his whisky glass to the side and then pushed his reading glasses back to the bridge of his nose. He leaned across the small table we shared at a jazz club in the southern Hokkaido town of Hakodate and spoke slowly: “You, you came to Hokkaido, to play park golf?”

“I think so,” was all I could say, as old jazz numbers swirled around the room.

“But it is played by only old people, and you will have to go far, up north, into the country to find it.”

I smiled, leaned back in my chair, and ordered the man another drink.

I had come to Japan a few years earlier to help the Coore & Crenshaw team redesign Yokohama Country Club’s West course. Between digging bunkers and discovering ramen, I had some fortunate opportunities to travel around, and naturally found myself looking through guide books along the way. It was among the pages on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, where I found a passage about this game referred to as ‘park golf’, because as its founder, Mr Atsushi Maehara, put it simply in 1983 (the year of its creation), “it is golf played in a park.” Now, the parks and gardens I had seen in Japan were thoughtfully maintained pieces of land, and golf has always been a game I’ve chased around; the idea of merging the two together sounded like a good walk that perhaps would not be spoiled, but rather enjoyed.

The following morning I left Hakodate and took a train to Sapporo, up north as the salaryman had instructed. From the window seat I caught glimpses of the game alongside the tracks, reminiscent of Ireland and the British Isles, where trains and golf often rode side by side. The flagsticks were of normal height but were bunched together, for the courses were tight and seemed to occupy quirky parcels of land. There were humps and hollows and little greens and even smaller bunkers. A few groups of parkers, as park golfers are known, huddled around the small greens and lashed at a ball that, from where I sat, appeared substantially larger than a standard golf ball. There were no golf bags, no clutter, certainly no carts; just each parker carrying one club, chasing their ball through the fields, like the shepherds of old.

Once in Sapporo, I traded the train seat for a rent-a-car, and typed ‘park golf courses’ into Google Maps. Red flags sprang up everywhere, dotting the city and the fields beyond. I decided to venture to the closest one first, Kitahassamu Park Golf Ground, for the itch was on.

I arrived at a baseball diamond nestled in a Sapporo neighbourhood, where a little league team took fielding practice in the dusty dirt. Beyond the left field fence was a pair of tennis courts, unoccupied, and past centre field was a playground where mothers watched their children trip and scream and play. But beyond the right field fence was a group of trees, and tucked amongst them were the flagsticks I had seen on the way up. From a distance I saw a lone man take a mighty swing; but just a half swing at that, in a croquet-like fashion.

The man appeared to be practicing, chasing two balls on each hole, for the course was free of charge, being a park and all. Nine holes were laid out, doglegging their way around trees and past old grassed-in bunkers. The ‘fairways’ were the width of a city sidewalk and shared the same height of cut as the greens, which were the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. I introduced myself in the best Japanese I could and the elder gentleman, Mr Moriya, gladly handed over the second ball he was playing, for he wanted a game.

The club resembled a large mallet putter made of wood, with zero degrees of loft. There was a plastic ‘sweet spot’ inserted in the face, a simple shaft, and a standard grip. My fingers found their natural interlocking position.

Each hole had a teeing ground consisting of astroturf and a plastic tee. The yardage ranged anywhere from 35 metres for a par three to 100 metres (the maximum yardage allowed for a park golf hole), for a par five. A good swing at the ball could send it rolling some 60 metres down the fairway, for the weighted wooden club and the plastic resin ball helped keep the distance in check. The two of us played well into that afternoon, playing nine again and again, each round taking a little more than a half hour to complete. Mr Moriya beat me handily at a game I thought would come easily to me, for he was able to control the ball, the distance it rolled, turning it over left and right, as well as getting it airborne off the tee. At the end of the day he shook my hand, slipped his club into the basket of his bike, and pedalled home.

I drove around Hokkaido for the rest of the week, chasing the red flags on Google Maps out into the country. The trick was to keep your eyes off the road, for there were park courses both everywhere and nowhere. Every town along the way seemed to have one or two tucked behind buildings or integrated into larger parks. Signs on street poles indicated the direction to the hospital, the highway, as well as to the local park course. There were plenty of courses along the rivers, and some down by the sea. There was a course at the end of a farmer’s field, and courses in the National Parks. There were courses that reminded me of other bigger courses: there was a mini St Andrews by the coast, with 90 holes, laid out on bumpy ground with fescues flailing in the wind. There was a mini Sharp Park in a coastal town, dotted with twisted red pines and a California vibe. There was a mini Augusta, the greenest of them all, with irrigation heads, towering pines, and blooming magnolias. There was a little American Country Club, cut through a grove of oak trees, with the only greens I came across that were maintained with a walk-behind mower; striped, and cut lower than the fairways. There were quiet, forgotten courses with donation buckets at the first tee and there were elaborate courses with clubhouses, starter shacks, and a ten dollar green fee. In all, there are 1,283 park courses in Japan. I ran into roughly two dozen of them.

And contrary to what the salaryman had told me, park golf was not just played by old people. I played 18 holes one day with a young high school couple who giggled their way through the round, and played another nine the following day with a family that spanned three generations; from grandfather to granddaughter, all of us sharing the same tee box. The finest parker I played with that week was a young lady my age, Mizoho, who was the lone maintenance worker at Shiraoi Park Golf Course, a 36-hole track by the sea. She mowed fairways and greens in the mornings, and then beat me handily that afternoon, making a hole-in-one on the seventeenth. I came across park courses that were full of both women and men, young and old, seasoned players and first time parkers; some wearing golf shoes and gloves and collared shirts, others wearing flip flops and shorts and backward hats. There were courses that were packed from tee to tee, and there were courses where I was the only one out there.

Could park golf work in America, or Europe? Perhaps, though I believe the game is fine where it lay. Part of the charm of park golf is it being “far away, up north, out in the country” of Hokkaido. There is one park course in America, in Akron, New York; brought back and built by Dick ‘The Destroyer’ Beyer, who wrestled in Japan for ten years before returning home, park golf in tow. Appropriately, it is named the Destroyer Park Golf Course.

Could it help grow the game of golf, its older sibling? It could certainly help keep it afloat. Like Top Golf, or putting courses, driving ranges and ‘short courses’, any activity that gets a person outdoors swinging at a little white ball is good for the game of golf as we know it. All that’s needed is one good strike, one miraculous putt, one lucky bounce, and the bug will bite.

But I really shouldn’t try to compare the two; park golf and golf. Though the games are similar in their objectives (trying to knock a ball into a hole in the least amount of strokes) as well as the land that they are played on (just smaller and bigger versions of the two), there was a lingering difference that came after each swing on a park course: I was having fun. There were no ten-minute searches for a five dollar ball, no petty rules to look up in a book. There were no concerns over a course’s conditioning; a larger ball and a larger cup kept the rub of the green in play. There were no dress codes, nor was there an etiquette to oblige to. There was no wasted time playing park golf; putts weren’t read, simply struck; yardages weren’t studied, just guessed. Yet the game was a challenge. I gave my best in every match, lost every one, yet I still had fun. It was quirky, quick, and carefree. It was inexpensive and spent with good company. It was ‘golf played in a park’. It was perfect. But perhaps most importantly, park golf was treated as a game; as a walk that shouldn’t be spoiled, but enjoyed instead.

This article first appeared in issue 50 of Golf Course Architecture