Hirono Golf Club was founded in 1932 and an Englishman called Charles Alison, who was responsible for the design of many of Japan’s great courses, laid it out. This intensely private Japanese members club is located about fifteen miles northwest of the city of Kobe, which is Japan’s most important seaport. Sadly, Kobe hit the news headlines in 1995 for the wrong reasons after an earthquake, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale, devastated the area of Hyogo killing more than 5,000 people.
Natural disasters tend to place golf clubs and courses into perspective but Hirono is the most important golf course in Japan and it’s the yardstick for which all other golf courses across the whole of Asia are measured. Charles Alison and Harry Colt fashioned some of Britain’s greatest golf courses and Alison used all of his knowledge and design skill to create the magical Hirono, which would not look out of place along England’s Surrey/Berkshire sand belt.
“Sadly, Hirono was requisitioned by the Imperial
Air Force as a runway during the Second World War, destroying much of the
course,” wrote Henry Lord & Peter Pugh in Masters of Design. “After the
conflict a huge restoration project was carried out by Toyohiko Inui and Osamu
Ueda (designer of the prestigious Koga golf course) using Alison’s original
plans. In many ways this was a great success, but some of Alison’s intentions
were lost. For example, a lot of the rugged sandy wasteland was converted into
ordered grass-faced bunkering, and aggressive tree planting has since left the
course with a distinctly parkland feel. Nevertheless, Hirono still ranks as the
best course in Asia and many of its holes provide a truly incredible test of
Hirono has played host to all the major Japanese championships and, although it measures a mere 6,925 yards from the back tees, it’s a supreme test of golf. It just goes to show that if you employ clever and thoughtful design, you don’t need to fashion a 7,500-yard monster to create challenge and intrigue. We must briefly mention the green sites at Hirono. They are pure magical theatre, with most raised proudly on plateaux, protect jealously by deep bold bunkering.
There are far too many brilliant holes to discuss at length, but we’ll first mention the par three 13th which is rather similar to “Golden Bell” the famous 12th at Augusta National, but we think Hirono’s 13th is more natural and dramatic.
The book 500 world’s greatest golf holes by author George Peper and the editors of GOLF magazine features the 565-yard par five 15th at Hirono: “As it’s a dogleg left, any attempt to shorten the hole by taking a line across the corner is thwarted by the placement of a fifty-year-old, one-hundred-foot Kuromatsu (black pine) that stands in the left half of the fairway. In the rough to the right side of the landing area, three bunkers punish drives that leak in that direction. This forces all tee shots to the right half of the fairway and ensures that the hole’s 565 yards will be directly confronted and negotiated. From the tee, the first of two natural ravines faintly appears in the distance, defined by characteristically ragged Alison bunkers cut into the facing. The second ravine is gentler and its slope provides the defining front lines to the putting green, as do its two bunkers. Two additional bunkers lend depth perception and guard the rear of the green.”
"The property is the perfect combination of
rugged, yet walkable terrain, wrote Tom Doak in The Confidential Guide to
Golf Courses. “Ravines at the top half of the property set up the driving
hazard for many of the longer holes, and then lead to the large ponds at the
bottom that serve as punctuation for the short 5th and 13th. However the club
has let the trees surrounding the holes encroach too tightly in recent years,
and we hope the recently announced restoration by Martin Ebert will be allowed
to address this.”
Mackenzie & Ebert commented as follows: “The course he [Alison] routed (the layout plans and green plans have been preserved in the Club records) is regarded as one of the worldwide classics and the bunkering shown in the early photographs of the course is remarkable in its detail and naturalness of appearance.
The opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Charles
Hugh Alison in travelling to Japan to provide input to a course which has meant
so much to Japanese golf is a real landmark for Mackenzie & Ebert. The
focus of the brief is to restore the old features of the course but also to
make it a suitable challenge for the best golfers.”
You’ll find it tricky to get a game here at Hirono but they say that all the best things come to those who wait. When you do eventually get a game and you’ve sunk your final putt, remember to take a look at the famous little golfing museum, which is located in the colonial-styled clubhouse.
The course has a uniqueness to it similar to that of Morfontaine in France or Pine Valley in the United States, with a great routing and unique holes. As with these two great courses, most holes are isolated from the others by dense trees. The par threes at Hirono are especially strong. The course is also one of the best conditioned I have ever seen. The greens and fairways are in meticulous condition and even the trees throughout the course are manicured from top to bottom like a Japanese garden. It also has all the key elements present in the courses of C. H. Alison: strategic bunkering, small elevated greens, double dog-legs and forced carries over ravines.
Most of the greens at Hirono are elevated. The trouble at Hirono is off the tee and around the greens. The course is built on relatively flat terrain and most of the lies you get in the fairway are level. Alison's design is very effective in creating illusions and incorrect depth perceptions.
The twelfth hole is the #1 handicap hole at Hirono and it is a double dog-leg par five that plays 596 yards with O.B. along the left side. It is a good hole, but there are two even better holes on the back nine as you come in toward the clubhouse: 14 and 15. In fact, the stretch of holes from 12 through 15 is one of the finest in the world.
Figuring out how to putt on Korai greens takes some getting used to. Golf in Japan is underrated relative to the rest of the world and Hirono is difficult to get invited to play, but worth the long travel if you can swing it.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
The second Japanese course on my wonderful itinerary happened to be the #1 course in Japan. What a special treat. A wet day greeted us but even that could not take away from Allison’s best gift to the golf world.
Hirono, is truly a special place, from the moment you drive up to this very traditional and formal club you know you have arrived at a club where golf is treated with the highest respect and honor.
After a welcome breakfast sandwich we were off and running. Hirono is packed with really cool features. The second hole has a terrorizing diagonal cross bunker terrorizing the tee shot. The way Alison built this into the natural swale in the fairway really makes you think from the tee and wonder if you can clear it or you need to lay up or take the safe route to the left.
The 3rd hole again challenges the tee shot with large swales and left side fairways bunkering on this dogleg left. To get the best angle in you either have to very long down the middle or challenge the bunker on the right side.
In classic Alison fashion you find quite a few raised and upside down saucer or crowned greens requiring exacting shot. The course is maintained firm and fast and certainly allows for usage of the ground game on many holes though most are pretty tricky shots to be fair. It’s harder to judge a shot that has to roll up a slight false front. Yet the option is there.
The front 9 is routed excellently through the undulated terrain and Alison succeeds in creating 9 very distinctive and different holes. The back 9 is even stronger. His use of diagonal lines, bunkers and the occasional water hazard or ravine are very strategic and this makes Hirono a course that requires tons of strategy off the tee. The par 3’s are excellent though I would prefer to see the old tee position from what used to be a brilliant redan on the back 9. This hole was changed to accommodate the lengthening of the par 5 previous hole. A clear mistake in the author’s point of view as this Redan might have been one of the best in existence.
Hirono is truly a special place, Alison put his heart and sole into this design and more than anywhere his spirit truly lives on in Japan. The experience is worth a special trip to Japan in my opinion.
One small hint, if you can make the turn before 11 am then you play 18 holes in succession otherwise you need to take a lunch break of an hour plus in-between nines. Such is Japanese tradition.