With the Olympics set to begin in Tokyo, we’ll finally get the chance to see this Hugh Alison gem
Among the many disappointments caused by the postponement of the Summer Olympic Games was this: The world lost the chance to see what golf in Japan looks like. Because while we know the Japanese are crazy about the game, very few of us have actually seen, let alone played, any of their courses. And by missing the East course at Kasumigaseki, we had missed one of the best.
The course, about an hour northwest of Tokyo, is credited to Charles H. (Hugh) Alison, who was Harry Colt’s partner in the early 20th century. Alison went to Japan in the 1930s when Colt didn’t want to, and made quite a mark building and renovating what are still the country’s best courses and mentoring local disciples. Most of his Japanese courses, including Kasumigaseki, feature distinctively big (in both width and depth), menacing bunkers, which are referred to over there as “Alisons.” Before Tom Fazio and son Logan reworked the East course in preparation for the now-frozen Summer Games, the bunkers were its best feature.
The original course was, in Tom’s words, “fairly flat, very uninteresting, and it was hard to remember the holes.” What most people did remember, besides the bunkers, was that each hole had two greens: Kasumigaseki was the first course in Japan to employ this concept, different greens with different grasses for different seasons, and Alison did a fine job keeping play interesting no matter which green was in play. Today, thanks to improved turf and maintenance technology, each hole has just one green, placed by the Fazios in the strategically best locations.
To deal with the monotonous flatness (which also created drainage issues), earth was moved and the fairways were contoured. But the holes themselves could not be rerouted since nearly every one is lined by trees, which are sacred in Japan. Tom said that in some cases trees were dug up, the land around them regraded, and then returned as close as possible to their original spots. They did this, he explained, to “create framing definition, create shadows, and create interest,” which would lead golfers to stand on a tee and say, as they do at courses like Cypress Point and Pine Valley, “Wow, look at that hole.”
“The strategy now is off the tee,” Tom went on. “Where do I place the ball? What is the best angle of attack into the green? The course looks easy but plays harder than it looks.”
One hole they didn’t do much to was the 10th, a mid-length par three over water to a pushed-up green guarded by one of Alison’s hellishly burly bunkers. When I played the course about six years ago, before the Fazio fix-up, I sprinted off the 9th green anxious to view the upcoming marvel. And I actually did stand on the 10th tee, gulp, and say “Wow.” It has been joined by 17 peers.