Japan golf club’s handicap: do we really prefer to lose Olympic, rather than sexist status?

Michelle Wie LPGA Golf Tour

Michelle Wie is a Korean American pro golfer who plays on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour (LPGA)

The all-male board of The Kasumigaseki Club would rather gamble hosting the 2020 Tokyo Olympic golf than follow Augusta and St. Andrews and admit ‘nuisance’ female golfers. Is a female golf ban really worth losing the Olympics over?

The all-too common tale of female golfers banned from full membership should, by now, qualify as quaint ‘mukashi banashi’, a piece of Japanese folklore. But at Kasumigaseki Country Club, located in the northwest of a country so futuristic it unveiled the bullet train at its last Olympics in 1974, board members are not ready for a fresh new chapter. 15 male suits are currently mulling if reforming their petty values is worth the ultimate prize of hosting the golf tournament at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

For the vice-president of the International Golf Federation (IGF), Ty Votaw, the answer is yes, of course it is, both ethically and commercially, and he has commendably and clearly stated to both Tokyo 2020 and Kasumigaseki that if the Club does not change its rules banning female membership, ‘then we cannot support holding the events at this venue’.

Surprisingly, even golf magnate Donald Trump doesn’t insist upon divergent tee times and membership options for the sexes at his golf clubs. Perhaps whether garnering golden Olympic status is worth more than the sanctimony of sexism is something that the US President might have debated with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when they played a round in Florida last week, at any time or place they pleased because they are men, after all.

Kimora prefers to scythe the field of permanent female members like his greens – they look most beautiful when growth is cropped short

Unlike the national sport of sumo wrestling, which has very few rules, you can imagine the multiple, arbitrary ones continually batted around the Kasumigaseki boardroom and fed as factual evidence for banning membership and Sunday rounds for females at the Saitama prefecture club. No doubt the 220 women who currently play only Monday-Thursday are slow, debase the skill level, disrupt the business meetings, the beers, the banter in the clubhouse. In Japan, the women are caddies, not golfers, wearing cute uniforms and huge bonnets on their heads. It’s all very strange considering Japanese male golfers are notoriously slow themselves, an average of five and a half hours per game, compared to an American golfer say, who would play 18 holes in three hours. You also cannot ignore the fact that the LPGA of Japan Tour is the second richest women’s golf tour in the world and Japan sits alongside South Korea and the US as the super powers of women’s golf – not a bonnet in sight.

Kasumigaseki Country Club, Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Kasumigaseki Country Club is north-west of Tokyo

Sadly, it’s not likely that a unanimous vote from 15 board members to reform the rules will be achieved when its head, Kimchi Kimora, says he finds the matter ‘really perplexing’. Whereas the general manager Hiroshi Imaizumi wisely bought some time by stating ‘I think we should keep up with the times’, Kimora was not so diplomatic. The women are ‘a nuisance’, he said, making plain that he is happy to host the Olympics, but not at the expense of his sexism, merely renting out the greens to female Olympians for a few days rather than inviting women far and wide to take out a sizeable mortgage on full annual membership in the future.

It’s all the more baffling when you consider that Japanese golf clubs are in a constant state of decline. Whereas links were built for more than $80m in the 1990s, membership numbers have now fallen below 70 people, and the number of regular golfers in Japan to half its peak, according to the Nippon Golf Course Employer’s Association. Although the club’s Olympic association has the opportunity to reap a potentially bumper crop of new memberships and so likely long-term financial recompense, plus global praise for treating women as equals, Kimora prefers to scythe the field of permanent female members like his greens – they look most beautiful when growth is cropped short.

In Japan, the women are caddies, not golfers, wearing cute uniforms and huge bonnets on their heads

It’s a view that the more historic Scottish golf course Muirfield has also recently taken, preferring to forgo hosting the British Open last year after board members voted not to admit its female members. Fingers crossed, a second vote is due to take place before the end of March. But if the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews can reverse its 260 year old traditions in 2014, and so can the home of the US Masters, the Augusta National, set an example in 2012 by ending its female ban, then surely the Tokyo club founded in 1929 that has hosted the 1999 Japan Women’s Open and says its guiding principle is ‘good fellowship’ can follow suit?

The Japan Golf Council, a non-profit group separate to the domestic governing body the Japan Golf Association, certainly believes so and has urged a change of venue as the membership policy ‘is quite contrary to the spirit of the Olympic Games’. If no compromise is realistic, Eiko Ohya, chairwoman of the council said she is ‘hoping for a change of venue to somewhere where the players and spectators will not suffer.’ Similarly, the Tokyo Governor, Yuriko Koike is ‘very uncomfortable that women cannot become full members in the 21st century’.

Unfortunately, the old Japanese idiom, ‘gold coins to a cat’, translating as giving something of value to a recipient who does not value it’, perfectly encapsulates The Kasumigaseki Club’s attitude not only to the Olympics but to Japan’s female golfers.


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