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 golfing skill.”
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 next to the colonial-styled clubhouse.
On January 1st, 2019, Hirono was closed for renovations. On October 1st, 2019, it will reopen, but will be closed on Mondays and Fridays until end of June 2020. For Asia’s #1 course, the time has finally come to show-off its revived look. I was fortunate to spend an afternoon this week on the entire property watching them put the very final touches to this legendary course and seeing the upgrades throughout. The vibe at the club is bursting with energy, and the few photos on social media over the past few months have only whet the appetite of members and international fans all over the world. The beast is about to come out of hibernation and member tee times are already booked up for months! Overall observations include:
· Widespread tree clearance to return the width of all of the par 4s and 5s. Walking the fairways, you can frequently see the old mowing lines and where the tree stumps used to be. Now the lines are pushed back opening views that have been seen in countless decades. This is my third time on the golf course and when I last played it in 2017, the encroaching trees were somewhat claustrophobic in too many places. I was relived to see that this has been remediated.
· Every bunker has a new handsome look with aggressive edging and sharp looking lines. They feel more muscular and thoughtfully created, with all of them being a factor
· Large dramatic waste areas between tees and the start of a fairway have been introduced on a couple of the holes (eg: 6th hole). I questioned whether this was a restoration based on old photographs or whether the architects took a poetic license. As always, it’s a combination of both with some modern imagination. For the better player, I suggested that these waste areas won’t actually come into play at all from the tee with a decently struck shot as the carry isn’t more than 150 yards – but it’s certainly a daunting visual that absolutely gets respected. Huge compliments for the architects for their brilliant designs.
· All of the greens have been resurfaced and mirror previous undulations
· Bunkers have been restored, some more iconic than others.
· As expected, the playing conditions are immaculate with firm fairways, healthy new greens and pristine tee boxes.
· The 4th green has been moved about 25 yards to the right into a new position. You can now clearly see it from the tee.
· Hirono’s prize possessions are the par 3s, and clearly most of the attention over the past 9 months has been on this collection of holes that are known around the world. The large sprawling bunkers that guard the front of the majestic 5th green have been restored. You lose track of time taking photographs of something that could only exist in your dreams. Similarly, with the par 3 7th hole, old photographs from the 1930s show the sheer magnificence of the bunkers scattered throughout the deep ravine and dominating the rugged landscape that wraps around the perched green-site. It was one of the most peaceful times of the day just staring at the massive waves of sand traversing the terrain. It doesn’t stop there. On my first and second visit to the golf course over the past few years, members always lamented the loss of the original 13th tee that was discontinued 25+ years ago and became a forgotten forest. While the tee in use over the past few decades is a spectacular setting by itself looking down over the water to the cinderella green-site, Martin Ebert’s team have restored the original tee that offers a direct shot over the bridge onto the green with the large bunker more directly in your line of play. In all honesty, both teeing grounds are world class, and it’s like picking a favourite child if you’re asked your preference. Let’s not forget where we are. The long par 3 17th that plays around 220 yards mostly over water hasn’t really changed other than some bunker shaping around the green. It doesn’t have the same personality as the other short holes as there is no change in elevation.
· Several of the par 4s on the back nine have a new revived look, which is hugely welcomed. I’ll give a couple of examples. The legendary ‘Cape’ hole at #14 has had massive tree clearance on both sides. The ‘principals’ nose’ like bunker continues to sit in the middle of the severely pitched fairway, and immediately asks the golfer to take the high-road or the low-road. A more direct route up the left-hand side off the tee will leave you with a shorter approach, but the angle is brutal given the enhanced green-side bunkers. Naturally it’s a much longer tee shot to reach the upper plateau on the right-hand side, but the reward is an easier approach. You may have also seen photos of what was done to the start of the 18th fairway. It used to be a bank of diagonal grass that brought you up to the dog-leg, but today, that same piece of land has about 20 masculine looking bunkers that make you say “wow”. It has really beefed up the finish.
· To balance the review, the parcel of land that Hirono GC occupies is relatively tight and a few holes are less memorable in the flatter spots (eg: #1, #4, #8, #11) which is simply a result of the vast number of “all world” holes that exist elsewhere on the rolling topography. It’s all relative, and unquestionably, each hole certainly fits nicely into the delightful routing.
· You may read all this and ask, “does this bring Hirono into the top 10 in the world rankings?”. From my educated perspective, the course is comfortably in the 20-30 range and that feels right. I’ve no doubt Hirono will climb up appropriately in each respective ranking publication as panelists get to see it. The renovations are sublime but, calling a spade a spade, it’s not on the level of a dramatic overhaul of the original bones where we have a brand-new golf course with holes never seen before. It’s absolutely the top dog in Japan and Asia though.
· Off the course, several upgrades have been implemented with a new car park, a new pro-shop (don’t tell my wife what I spent), new road surfaces around the facilities, upgraded handsome bridges, new cart-paths and a new website in English with photographs/videos of each hole is in development.
Faces get older, swings get shorter, but as time goes by at Hirono, smiles get wider and horizons stronger.
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.