Tokyo Golf Club was founded in 1913 but the club moved site twice before settling on its present location, close to the former castle town of Kawagoe or “Little Edo” as it is known locally (Edo is Tokyo’s former name).
“Golf has been played continuously here since 1953 and four post-war Japan Opens have been staged,” writes James Spence in his book The Finest Golf Courses of Asia & Australasia, “the first in 1954 and the most recent in 2001 where the winning score was 277, a mere 7 under the tournament par of 71. Even though Tokyo Golf Club is not a long course by modern standards, it protects its par well. If you are fortunate enough to be invited to play here, it will serve you well to remember this.”
Komyo Ohtani who studied in England laid out the course in 1940. Ohtani was an admirer London’s brilliant sand belt courses and he brought a sprinkling of Surrey to Tokyo Golf Club. Two sets of greens for each hole is common at Japanese golf clubs, one is generally in play during the summer and the other is generally a winter green, seeded with a more hardy strain of grass. Tokyo Golf Club employs this dual green system. “This permits variation in length and difficulty of the holes with some cost to the visual impact of the holes at the margin.” Writes James Spence, but he goes on to say that Tokyo “is a delight to play but the back nine has a little more feature and more pronounced bunkering than the front.”
You’ll need an invite to play here at Tokyo Golf Club but if you are lucky enough to receive one, take it immediately. This is a world-class golf course that is mature way beyond its years.
In October 2009, Gil Hanse was commissioned by Tokyo Golf Club to create a master plan for the restoration of the classic Ohtani-designed Tokyo course and the work was completed in 2010. Click here to read an interview with Gil Hanse by Tokyo Golf Club committee member, Mr Ito.
I first visited Tokyo Golf Club in 2010 and I remember walking upstairs in the clubhouse to the library room and seeing the Gil Hanse design drawings for the Asaka greens. At the time, they were the new greens. Nine years later, they are now the old greens because of the recent introduction of the new Chichibu green complexes, following redesign work by Hanse Golf Design. My memories from 2010 suggested that the topography was relatively benign compared to the other great courses in Japan, and with encroaching trees lining the holes, this aggregated to a less memorable experience. I struggled to remember any of the course, which I generally consider a negative.
Fast-forward to today, my second experience playing the course was tremendously more positive. Width has been restored to the playing corridors, and dozens of bunkers have been reshaped added significantly more character to the visuals across the topography. Historically, the two greens on each hole had noticeably different characteristics in terms of texture, speed and undulations – but now with the passing of time and the increased involvement of Hanse, it was suggested that the two greens will evolve into more similar and consistent playing conditions. Many of the greens are elevated with deep bunkers surrounding them, as it the typical defense for a flat piece of land. I loved the cross bunkering throughout the course, especially on the 1st and 2nd holes and 13th holes which offer really exciting strategic choices off the tee. While the land may be flat in places, there is certainly a mental challenge with which route you will take depending on wind conditions. With the removal of trees, the angles into the greens (regardless of which set of greens you’re playing on a given day) have been significantly enhanced to add to the enjoyment of your round.
A personal favourite hole was the par 5 13th with a massive sprawling diagonal cross bunker. If you cross the left side of it you have a shorter route into the green to make birdie, but if you can’t carry it, you play way out to the right and follow the split fairway. This strategy was not even possible in recent years as hundreds of trees down the left-hand side had taken over so much property, rendering the split fairway impossible. Now it is wide open and this par 5 is a sight to see. It is clear that Hanse was focused on taking this course to the next level and the results have shown mightily. Each of the par 3s have a crisscross set up between tee box and green which is really fun when you stand on a green and look back at the two tee boxes available for different angles. Chipping areas around the greens have been expanded which offer wonderful visuals and flow, with some tee boxes being a continuation of a chipping area from the previous green. With the widespread tree removal, the health of the property is in abundance and gives each hole a chance to come out of its shell. While each hole certainly still has trees, they frame the landscape so much better than I remember.
Aerial photos of the course will highlight the amazing number of times you change direction. As an example, every hole on the front nine is in a different direction than the previous hole, including the outstanding par 4 6th hole which plays to an elevated plateau fairway that turns left and then downhill to the protected green. It is by far the hardest hole on the course and quite rightly is the Index 1 on the card. The bunkers that sit between the Asaka and Chichibu greens on the 6th hole are merciless and are true hazards. Water comes into play on certain holes due to the strategic improvement of how the course drains. Drainage was a big problem before Hanse built water ways that have been subtly integrated with the design and play a big role with holes 5 and 6, which are long and difficult for starters! I think it is a huge mistake to overlook this course in favour of other big-name courses in Japan. While it doesn’t have the dramatic topography of Kawana (Fuji) or Naruo, I now have a fresh opinion on how enjoyable it is to play here and truly appreciate the passion that the club has for its distinguished history, its prominent present and undoubtably a strong future. The genius and thoughtful design of Gil Hanse cements the reality that you don’t always need coastlines or a 60-foot change in elevation to create an architectural masterclass.
Tokyo Golf Club is built on relatively flat land. It is characterized by its elevated greens, fairways that get progressively narrow as you get near the green, and extremely difficult rough. Because it gets so hot and humid in the summer Tokyo was designed with two sets of greens with different types of grass: one strain that is better in cooler weather and one set is better in warm weather.
The course has a lackluster front nine but a much better back nine, particularly holes ten through fourteen. The 10th hole is a good example of how the fairway narrows and snakes its way toward the green. The narrowness of the layout puts a premium on a player’s ability to hit fairways and greens. I liked the 11th hole quite a bit. It is a short par four with a highly elevated green and beautiful "Alison" bunkering. The 17th green at Tokyo Golf Club is again a good example of the elevation found around the putting surfaces. This beautiful downhill par three places a premium on hitting the green.
Tokyo Golf Club at times reminded me of the George Thomas designed Los Angeles Country Club North Course in both style and feel. The dual greens are an interesting twist and the club itself has a very exclusive and upper crust feel to it.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
The last of my visits on what turned out to be an amazing visit to Japan was the very traditional and highly esteemed Tokyo Golf Club. This is yet another experience not all too different from Hirono and Naruo in terms of old school, traditional and understated beautiful courses. Alison again had a hand in the original design and while it was altered during the war much of his original design has been brought back to life afterwards by Komyo Ohtani. For me one very interesting aspect of Tokyo Golf Club was the fact that they had two completely different green sites for every single hole. This is something you can hear about in advance but still it seems tough to really visualize it until you see it the first time.
In the old days there was a summer and winter green to split up the usage. Imagine the extra costs involved in terms of maintenance! Surely this must be one of the most unpractical set ups possible. On the positive side the greens were terrific and this could be largely due to the fact they get enough time to recover.
The layout of the course is excellent. We played in a rather high wind which made it really tough for me given many of the holes require shaped tee shots that I struggled to pull off on the day. Might not of helped that it was my 20th round of my trip in 15 days but then again I was fit enough to walk out onto the course. Just caved in by the time we reached the front 9 (after lunch). We had started on the back 9. The course seems to have a nice flow to it that allows it to be played either way and still makes sense whether starting at 1 or 10.
My two favorite holes were 1 and 2, or 10 and 11 as it was on my day there.
It’s certainly another course full of strategy off the tee where pin positions play an essential role in the optimal angle of approach. There are also many diagonal angles brought into play off the tee like at the par 4 2nd hole forcing the player to pick a line off the tee to clear the diagonal bunkers running left to right.
Tokyo Golf Club has the feel of a very old and traditional club and they treat the game with the utmost of respect.
If ever you have an invite to play this great course you most certainly must jump on the chance.