Death at the Club Is Par for the Course in Golf-Crazed Japan

TOKYO - An exhausted Takahiro Kawakita, arms splayed, slumps in a chair at the Ishihara Hills Golf Club. The middle-aged photo company employee doesn't seem to notice the television set blaring in the corner, or the grasshopper sniffing his sweat-soaked handkerchief crumpled on the table before him. He is girding himself for the battle ahead.

"I don't have much time to talk," says the red-faced duffer, worn out from the morning's nine holes of golf. "I've got to be back on the course at 12:47."

Mr. Kawakita's sapped state is par for the course in Japan, where the Ministry of Health has disclosed a terrible secret: In this country, golf kills.

More Hazardous Than Croquet

Golf is eight times more likely than running is to kill a Japanese man over 60, according to a ministry study. It is worse than tennis, mountaineering and croquet (which ranked surprisingly high).

"I've got a personal list of 64 people who died on the putting greens." says Keizo Kogure, sports doctor and author of "How to Die Early by Playing Golf." He figures that every year, about 4,750 golfers take the fairway to heaven.

A look at the stressful style of Japanese gorufu, as golf is called here, suggests why the nation has so many golf deaths.

Japan has more than 1,900 courses, and all are packed. Ishihara Hills, a public club two hours from Tokyo, books players up to three months ahead. "There are still a few vacancies in August," says manager Takuji Matsuzaki. "Everything else is taken."

"Everything" means every minute. The manager, a onetime Honda factory supervisor, spaces his foursomes just seven minutes apart - and the pressure is on to keep the line moving no matter what. Production time is down to six minutes at some other clubs, where reservations are sometimes made six months in advance.

If you miss your tee-off time, you could wait three more months for an opening. Tokyo travel agent Gaijiro Yamaguchi regularly crawls out of bed at 4 o'clock for an early morning game. "Most of the other cars on the road at that hour are golfers," he says.

Swinging In the Rain

Not crazy, says John Stapleton, a U.S. executive schooled in the Japanese way of golf. "It's honor. You've got a commitment, so you go in spite of anything." Once, he says, "rain was blowing in sheets, and the trees were bent sideways from the wind." His partners came for him anyway. He has since played in snow, fog and gloom of night.

Whatever the weather, players usually rush to get to the club early so they can relax before the morning's round with a scotch and water.

Then on to the course, where caddies -- usually hard-bitten older women, and mandatory on the links here -- set the tone with a pre-tee-off lecture.

"There's no etiquette out there anymore," snaps Ishihara Hills caddie Miss Sakai, who declines to give her first name. With a fierce dab at the makeup beneath her sun helmet, she snarls through her dentures. "Players should be able to finish in two hours." Throughout the game, she hectors players to speed up, slow down, to stay in formation with players ahead and behind.

Stressful as this hard-driving caddie may be, players are often burdened by another worry -- their partners.

Yoshimitsu Fukuda frets and sweats next to the ninth green at the Tokyo Country Club. He is playing golf with clients, and there is pressure to keep them happy.

"I feel like I ought to lose on purpose, but then there's a risk that they'll figure it out," the 51-year-old bag manufacturer says. He nervously twists an empty, cigarette pack. Sand bursts from the bunker behind him. Then more sand. "I'd be grateful if they could get a good score," he says plaintively.

The golfer eventually emerges from the sand trap. "I'm struggling, but I'm really enjoying it," he says, and Mr. Fukuda, a fresh pack of smokes in his pocket, happily scurries for the clubhouse.

"You've only got 30 minutes for lunch," his caddie barks at his back. "Hurry up."

Like caddies, lunch is mandatory, at the links around Tokyo, even if players finish the front nine at 10 a.m.

"Try this. it's delicious," says Tsujiyo Takahashi from his beer-drenched clubhouse table. He proffers an artery-clogging sprig of broccoli wrapped in fatty bacon, encased in onion shavings, then dipped in batter and deep-fried. His tablemates dig into thick curries, pork chunks and, perhaps in a nod to nutrition, tofu.

Mr. Kawakita pours another scotch and water and contemplates the game's mysteries. "Sand traps are the most dangerous," he says through a mist of tobacco smoke. "Your blood pressure races in a bunker shot, and you die walking onto the green. People think it's the putting that kills you."

Up before dawn, putting while it pours, drinks before noon, forced marches, leaden lunches, chain-smoking. What else?

Gambling. Really complicated gambling. Halfway through his game, Mr. Kawakita knits his brow. He has nine concurrent bets on this round. Among them: a close-to-the-pin bet, a putting bet, a halfway-score bet, a total-score bet.

The stress isn't the stakes. They are usually small. It's the honor that is at stake: his, the client's, the foursome's, his company's, his client's company's.

At this point, a glorious hole-in-one would seem a gambler's dream. But in gorufu, it is cause for more alarm. A hole-in-one obligates the golfer to buy expensive gifts for his fellow players, throw a drinking party and plant a commemorative tree near the tee to mark his "joy." So. golfers struggle to hit the ball close to the hole -- but not too close. (To ease the mind, players can buy nearly $5,000 in hole-in-one insurance before the game for about $100.)

Once the last putt is made, it is off to the clubhouse for more drinking. Then, maybe a party and dinner in town. Then more drinking. "One time I got up at 4 a.m., and got home at one in the morning," recalls Mr. Stapleton, the American executive.

And so it is that sleep deprivation, booze and pressures on the course make gorufu a real type-A aorta-popper for out-of-shape players. But try telling that to Mr. Kawakita, the duffer at Ishihara Hills. Beet-faced and breathless, he is running back to the course for more relaxation.

"This is great," he exclaims, turning his head nervously, as the clock ticks toward 12:16. "I've got a day off work!"

from the Wall Street Journal