Naruo Golf Club opened its course in 1920 but in 1931 the club availed itself of the services of itinerant English architect C.H. Alison. In his one sojourn in Japan, Alison worked on the Fuji course at Kawana Hotel, the East course at Kasumigaseki Country Club, Tokyo Golf Club (the Asaka course was destroyed during the war and never rebuilt), Hirono Golf Club near Osaka as well as remodelling projects at Ibaraki Golf Club and here at Naruo Golf Club.
All the courses share some themes, most notably small, round greens which are often elevated and large “welcoming” irregular shaped bunkers with pronounced front lips. Naruo also features some elevation changes but not nearly as much as Kawana where the cliff side landscape is more extreme.
At 6,564 yards from the back tees, Naruo can no longer be considered a long course, but length would new have been the principle defence of par. The greens are small and when the pins are placed close to the edges, it brings the hazards into play. Even if you miss the large bunkers which tend to sit well below the surface of the green, you will find yourself in tangly rough and all the uncertainty of result that comes from playing from it.
Naruo shares all the traditional aspects of Japan’s older clubs. The continuity in tradition here is maintained by the 700 members whose average age is 71. Despite being over 70 years old in its revamped guise, the thoughts behind the design feel fresh and communicate clearly. As with all good Alison designs, the approach shots to the greens have a tremendous sense of occasion that you only find on the world’s greatest courses.
The above passage is an edited extract from The Finest Golf Courses of Asia and Australasia by James Spence. Reproduced with kind permission.
The first golf shot I ever hit in the country of Japan was in September 2010 on the first tee at Naruo GC. What a treat! Although I’ve been to Japan 5 times in total at this point, it had been 9 years since I last played Naruo. I can honestly say that I remembered every hole clear as day, and I can’t say that about every course I play. To say that Naruo is special is a gross understatement. The landforms that occupy this layout are nothing short of stunning and are guaranteed to take your breath away. On paper, while the course is relatively short by today’s standards, don’t let this fool you into thinking it’s a walk in the park.
The greens are small at Naruo, and almost all of them are flat and simple in nature. A couple of them have a small tier or are presented at an angle to the fairway, but, their simplicity is to be respected especially with slow korai grass. The opening tee shot is over a beautiful body of water to a tree lined par 4. This opening visual is glorious and often the signature photograph people are familiar with. Raised green and large Alison bunkers are quickly introduced from the first two holes. The sweeping elevation changes really begin on the 3rd hole as you navigate your way down a steep hill with the fairway ending at about 265 yards before the land drops down further leaving you with an approach shot back up to the raised green. If you hit your drive too far, you’ll run out of fairway and it’s no fun playing from heavier grass with a downhill lie to a raised green. The par 3s at almost every Alison course are a sight to behold, and this is especially true at the 4th hole. While the walk to the 4th tee is longer than we’d like, it plays 200 yards straight uphill with multiple rows of massive bunkers sprawling before and around the green. It’s certainly a moment to savour just looking at the design. Even after 4 holes, memories from 2010 were flooding back to me and the juices were truly flowing.
My favourite par 4 on the front is the 5th hole. The tee shot is somewhat blind to a raised plateau leaving you to carry over the swooping land to another thin small green. You have to be so precise! You change direction again with the downhill 6th hole which moves gently from right to left. Holes 7, 8 and 9 are all meandering dog leg lefts. Given that I naturally fade the ball off the tee, club selection becomes paramount. The 7th is a snaking par 5 of about 490 yards. While it’s reachable in two for longer hitters, it’s actually a double dog-leg requiring a fade off the tee to get the optimal angle into the tiny green protected by a large bunker in front. When standing on the 8th tee, you see a truly fantastic naturally dog-leg created by a massive landform that juts out from the left of the hole which you must play over and around. The fairway moves beautifully from right to left around this landscaping, and the ideal tee shot leaves you with an uphill approach to a green framed superbly by trees. The 9th has a very similar tee shot again, but the hole is shorter and requires just as much precision hitting it right to left off the tee over the landform. The opening nine is just a masterpiece and offers so much unique design that you may only see once in your life.
After a well-deserved lunch, the back nine starts off with one of the toughest par 4s in Japan. It’s a long downhill par 4, and like the 3rd hole (which runs parallel), the fairway ends at around 270 yards. The approach shot from the fairway is over a massive ravine (with a tiny strip of fairway) to an angled green. This green is pretty exposed in the middle of the property and is quite susceptible to swirling winds to just add to the challenge. The uphill dog-leg left 11th may could be my favourite on the back nine. Hitting a tee shot of about 230 yards to the ideal landing area, leaves you with a view up the sharp dog-left to the raised green that is framed like a fairytale. As always, the greens are small and demand plenty of accuracy to have any hope. The 12th is a mid-length par 3, the 13th is a very short uphill par 4 lined with trees that occupies a tight piece of the property. To get to the 14th tee, you have to walk around the 18th green – and the hole itself is a downhill par 5 to a small green that is severely raised and rejects almost everything that dreams of hitting it. The 15th is the last of the epic par 3s. Alison moved the tee box from the original design over the road to it’s currently position today. You play over the cherry blossoms to the green perched high above you with those trademark bunkers where there are plenty of wonderful photography opportunities. The closing stretch of holes run up and down in parallel as you traverse similar tree lined terrain back and forth. Upon reaching the last green, you have truly experienced one of golf’s greatest gifts. Traditions are preserved so carefully at historical places like Naruo Golf Club, and I can’t express enough how grateful I am to have graced this land again.
Naruo Golf Club is one of the most historic courses in the whole of Japan that has 2,400 courses in total. It features small Kourai (Japanese lawn grass) greens. If they were changed to bent grasses, the course’s rating would be a little higher. Kourai grasses are much slower than bent grass surfaces. At Naruo, almost all holes are separated by big trees and utilize the natural, hilly rolling terrain, and each hole is unique. All four par threes are difficult and challenging. Although the course in not long, it is hard to card a good score because almost all the greens are small, elevated and fully guarded by deep bunkers. The course is not only narrow, flanked by trees, but also has a lot of uneven lies. Additionally, some holes might tempt you to make aggressive shots, which could put you in the designer’s traps, and accordingly hit high scores. However, no single hole is overly tricky and you can play fairly against the course designer.
The par four 476-yard 10th is downhill and long with an excellent view from the tee. The second shot is over a deep hollow which used to be a river many years ago. You had better carry over the wide bunker 50 – 60 yards from the center of the green, and then you can have an easier approach shot to the pin from a flat lie even if you don’t hit the green in regulation. If you are short of the flat area, even if only slightly, the next approach shot will be difficult because the ball will roll back down to the bottom of the steep slope or will be caught in a bunker where a long bunker shot is needed. This hole was selected as one of the best 500 holes in the world by GOLF Magazine in 2000 (the latest version to date).
The par three 189-yard 15th is a beautiful signature hole over a valley. The green slopes from back to front and is protected by bunkers on all four sides of the green. You can’t hit the green in regulation unless your shot is not only the right distance but also very accurate. If you hit left to right too much, the ball will roll down the valley on the right side of the fairway, which leads to the OB.
If you ever have the opportunity to play Naruo Golf Club I suggest you do some training beforehand. Perhaps run a marathon, enter an Ironman competition or train for the Olympics. You need to be fit to play Naruo. The course is built on terrain that is quite hilly and is one of the most difficult courses I have ever walked. As with all private courses in Japan, there are caddies and you walk the course. How difficult is Naruo to walk? So difficult that they have built in a traction system around all eighteen holes so that the caddies don't have to push the carts up and down the hilly terrain. The mechanized system works with some sort of magnets under the ground and the caddie controls it by remote control.
The property at Naruo reminded me of Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles because it is a relatively small piece of landlocked hilly property. The course is not only narrow, but also has a lot of uneven lies. I personally rank it as one of the hardest courses in the world along with Bethpage, Oakmont and Carnoustie.
Playing Naruo requires you to embrace the Japanese phrasenanakorobi yaoki which translates to 'perseverance is better than defeat'. The Japanese occasionally adapt a close variation of an English word to describe something. I wouldn't at all be surprised if Naruo were a bastardization of the English word 'narrow'.
The course has tiny greens, most are elevated and as is typical on an Alison designed course, well bunkered. After you finish the front nine there is a little mechanized golf cart that brings you up a steep incline back to the clubhouse to have lunch. The cart seats four and is so absurdly slow that you could clearly walk up a lot faster, but at this point, most people are hurting, so it is a nice transition to lunch.
The 10th hole is the hardest par four I have ever played. It makes the Road Hole at St. Andrews look like a birdie opportunity. It plays 470 yards and it is best to hit a very long drive here since you want your second shot to be as short as possible. The forced carry is over 'Death Valley', a 170 to 200-yard carry over a chasm that has a thirty-foot drop. If you are unlucky enough to have your ball go down into the valley of death, you can't even remotely see where the flag or hole is located. Be sure to stop at the tea house on the 15th hole for a rest.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
My first ever trip to Japan and I’m fortunate enough that this trip was for golf. The first course I had the honor of playing was Naruo. Naruo is a very private traditional members club near Osaka. What a beautiful place it is. I was fortunate to catch it on a literally perfect spring day with a large group of my new Japanese friends many of which are members. When you travel to Japan to see the best courses there one thing is readily apparent. Charles H. Alison’s spirit lives in this country. His best work arguably as well and he’s had significant influence on the history of Japanese golf not to mention having a hand in routing the 4 best courses there.
Naruo is full of intricacies and strategy from tee to green. A perfect example of this is the par 4, 4th hole. This beauty of a hole rewards a drive down the left side flirting with the OB line. The drive plays out over a rolling hill that runs diagonally away from the tee box and out of bounds from left to right. There is plenty of space to the right but the long narrow green which has been placed diagonally just under the top of another rolling hill runs away from any tee shot to the right. Any tee shot too far to the right will be blocked out visually on the approach and be challenged with a very awkward angle. There is a huge bunker protecting the front left side of the green.
Similarly the reachable par 5, 7th hole rewards a drive down the right side taking on the right side fairway bunker and OB line with a clear view and shot at the extremely small green that is protected with a bunker from anything coming in from the right side. A classic risk and reward par 5 where relative short length is protected by strategy and precision.
Naruo continues with these type of well thought out holes that make perfect use of the excellent rolling property.
Alison courses are known to be very challenging, especially around the greens and this was accentuated by this being my first play on Korai grass, which is a grass sort that is unique to Japan. To say it’s challenging in how it plays is an understatement. It’s fair to say that one of my strengths is putting and chipping however, these greens made me feel the fool. Where I usually feel I am a strong reader of the greens on these grasses that was certainly not the case. I think this was largely due to the grain but it certainly threw off my ability to judge the speed.
Nonetheless, Naruo is a great course and one that would take many plays to really figure out. Jump at any invite to play this classic.