News & Opinion

Tokyo runs rings around Rio for golf in '20

Remember when golf returned to the Olympics in 2016 after a 112-year absence? … That was awesome!

Except, the “Chris Farley Show” aside, in many ways it wasn’t awesome.

The timing of the comeback couldn’t have been much worse. That’s because the 2016 Summer Olympics were in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The girl from Ipanema goes walking, but when she does, she doesn’t carry golf clubs, and neither does her boyfriend. When it was announced that golf was onboard, Rio laid claim to one shabby golf course and nearly zero golf culture.

So, Gil Hanse was brought in and some $20 million was spent creating a proper championship venue in a nature reserve west of the city. But there were lots of problems, including environmental issues, political corruption, construction delays and a Zika virus. In the end, they pulled it off, sort of. Golf’s return as an Olympic event generally was regarded as a success. To this day, the Olympic Golf Course in Rio remains open, but it has about as many crocodiles and sloths on the fairways as it does golfers. The city is estimated to have only 1,500 golfers among its 6 million residents.

Three years later, the advance story for Olympic golf is considerably different. The 2020 Summer Olympics are slated for Tokyo, the capital of Japan and with a metropolitan population of 13 million. Japan knows golf. The country is home to nearly 2,500 courses, which vary from revered top-100 tracts to practice par 3s. The industry has seen a decline since the boom years of the 1980s – sound familiar? – but Japan still is a destination for golf, not an expedition.

The 2020 Olympic venue will be the East Course at Kasumigaseki Country Club, which has history that covers more than a few weeks. Located northwest of Tokyo in Kawagoe City, the course opened in 1929, or four years before Augusta National. Noted English architect Hugh Alison played a significant role in the final product, which long has been regarded to be among Japan’s elite facilities. Most recently, Tom Fazio and his son Logan tweaked the grounds, converting the two-green complexes – once common in Japan – into single greens and stretching the parameters from 6,970 to 7,466 yards.

This is an authentic piece, and it has provenance to prove it. Kasumigaseki was the site of the 1957 Canada Cup – now known as the World Cup – when Japan’s Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono defeated Americans Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead by nine strokes. The club has been the host of four Japan Opens, including the 1995 edition won by Toshi Ozawa, who tied for fourth at the 2001 Masters. In 2010, Hideki Matsuyama won the Asia-Pacific Amateur on Kasumigaseki’s West Course.

This is no hybrid, no hockey rink in a football stadium, no championship golf in a can. Kasumigaseki and Japan have something that Olympic golf didn’t have in 2016, something integral to the game, something that can’t be manufactured: tradition.

“Golf returned as an Olympics event, but I personally think that it didn’t heat up much in Rio,” Tsuneyuki Nakajima told the Associated Press during a media day earlier this week at Kasumigaseki. Nakajima won 48 times on the Japan Tour and posted top-10 finishes in each of the four professional major championships during the 1980s, including a T-3 at the 1988 PGA at Oak Tree.

And Nakajima makes an excellent point: “I believe that the true value of golf as an Olympic event will be judged after Tokyo.”

That’s not to say there won’t be speed bumps. Kawagoe City is some 40 miles from Tokyo, stashed in a remote, rural area. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump had no problem getting there to play a round together in 2017, but the commute, by train or car, is a solid hour. The logistics will make it difficult for players to stay in an athletes village in central Tokyo. You can hear the moaning and groaning emulating from press now.

At the same time, c’mon, this is championship golf. Since when did accessibility become a concern? Have you been to a U.S. Open? Does Shinnecock Hills or Kiawah mean anything to you? Could it be any worse?

Of course, no Olympics worth its rings can go off without some politics. Kasumigaseki already has bowed to pressure from the International Olympic Committee to make women eligible for full membership status, and to remove some weekend restrictions that did not apply to men.

“I believe there is no problem with this any longer,” said Hiromi Kobayashi, a Japanese native and the LPGA Rookie of the Year in 1990. “I’m happy that we will have a chance to promote Japan through hosting Olympics golf and show how great this golf club is to the world.”

Golf will be back in the 2020 Summer Olympics, but it won’t be just a bossa nova version. This time, it will sing.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD