U.S. Firm's Deft Play Helps Japanese Golf Out of Rough

A threesome and its caddy get in a round of golf at Daiatsugi Country Club, Atsugi City, one of more than 120 debt-ridden Japanese golf courses purchased by Goldman Sachs since 2000.
A threesome and its caddy get in a round of golf at Daiatsugi Country Club, Atsugi City, one of more than 120 debt-ridden Japanese golf courses purchased by Goldman Sachs since 2000. (Courtesy Of Accordia Golf - Courtesy Of Accordia Golf)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 15, 2008

KISARAZU CITY, Japan -- Strangled by exclusivity, speculation and greed, golf nearly died in Japan in the 1990s, when the bubble economy burst.

The game, though, has been hauled back from the graveyard. It's become cheaper, easier and more accessible to the average hacker. The number of rounds is up and the cost is down, as more women and young people demonstrate that golf is not just for older men with money.

The unlikely savior of golf in Japan is Goldman Sachs, the Manhattan-based investment banking and securities firm known for mega-mergers, managing rich people's money and minting U.S. Treasury secretaries such as Robert E. Rubin and Henry M. Paulson Jr.

The story of how and why Goldman Sachs rescued Japanese golf is not exactly warm and fuzzy.

"We buy things cheap and sell them high," said Shigeki Kiritani, managing director of Goldman's strategic investment group in Tokyo and the man behind the company's unusual play on bankrupt links.

But golf's revival here does demonstrate the sometimes-salvific power of bottom-feeding capitalism. It also shows how American marketing gimmicks have goosed the fussy style and glacial pace of the game in Japan.

And it explains how Japanese golfers, tens of thousands of whom squandered billions of dollars in the country's great golf-course bust, have gotten over their losses and gotten their groove back out on the course.

Consider the costly fall and contented rise that mark the golfing life of Hiroshi Asami, 69, an architect and construction company owner who plays these days at the Aqualine Golf Club here in Kisarazu, about an hour's drive southeast of Tokyo.

Asami joined the club 15 years ago when it was still under construction, paying $135,000 for the privilege. At the time, he belonged to five other expensive golf clubs.

When Asami joined Aqualine, the "first objective of the club was to have very few members and make the course as luxurious as possible," he said.

Like nearly all of the 2,000 or so golf courses that sprang up across Japan during the bubble years, the course was for the exclusive use of business executives, their clients and their chums.

A weekend round of golf was slow, boozy, expensive and strictly regimented, Asami said. The day began around 8 a.m. with breakfast at the club, followed by nine holes of golf (always with caddies), followed by a lunch with lots of wine, beer and sake, followed by nine more holes and coffee or tea to finish up before a long drive home.


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