Isao Aoki was the first Japanese male golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, winning 71 times worldwide on six different tours. Aoki’s pioneering spirit during his playing days helped grow the game in his home country, which in October 2019 will host a PGA TOUR event for the first time.
Outside of the U.S., Japan is the best-supplied golf country in the world, with more than 3,100 courses. The game has faced its challenges in Japan, however, and Aoki in particular cites the country’s aging golf population. But Aoki also sees opportunity ahead.
As chairman of the Japan Golf Tour Organization, Aoki played a role in bringing the PGA TOUR’s Zozo Championship to Japan. And in 2020, Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics, where golf will be on the schedule for just the second time in more than a century.
“It will be a great opportunity to show people how fun golf is and get them interested,” the 76-year-old Aoki said during a presentation on Japanese golf at the NGF’s 2019 Golf Business Symposium. “Golf is such a fun sport and it hasn’t changed, but the environment is changing.”
Aoki said that an estimated 6.7 million people played golf in Japan in 2017, fewer than half the number that played the game 20 years earlier. Yet participation figures in Japan have increased slightly the past several years.
“I wish it’s because our efforts to promote golf, but it’s probably because golf courses have been streamlined and the price is no longer as expensive,” Aoki said through a translator. “The serious problem is the aging golf population. The biggest age group is 60. We need to get more younger people to play golf.”
As in the U.S., there are more and more ways to play golf in Japan away from the course, with options such as driving ranges, indoor simulators and soon, Topgolf. With many golf courses located well outside of major cities, different venues are emerging. Aoki says there are more than 3,000 driving ranges in Japan, but that number has been on the decline because of rising property taxes and the demand for land.
“People would go to ranges to practice, but reduced number of ranges has led to reduction in players,” Aoki said. “While (the) number of outdoor ranges has declined, there are more indoor and teaching centers in many residential areas of Tokyo. The golf bars are growing where you can drink and enjoy simulators.”
With a supply and demand imbalance in some areas, Aoki said it is becoming more common for golf courses in remote regions to be converted into other uses, such as solar farms.
“We will see these conversions more and more at a much faster pace,” Aoki said. “Additionally, many members of country clubs are aging, which adds financial pressure on clubs.”
Aoki was the first of five Japanese players to win a PGA Tour event and he did it in dramatic fashion, holing out a 128-yard wedge shot for eagle on the final hole to win the 1983 Hawaiian Open, by a single shot. He knows how thrilling and rewarding the game can be. And Aoki hopes to continue being able to share that with future generations, in part by challenging perceptions that it is too hard, too expensive and takes too long.
“The JGTO has been promoting golf by sending tour players to elementary schools in many cities, playing net golf with students, and we are donating golf gear to promote the game,” said Aoki, who has also espoused shorter, less time-consuming ways to play.
“Golf has a rich history,” he added. “We should tackle programs one at a time and look to make improvements while reserving the enjoyment of the game. I don’t know what future lies ahead, but the future of golf is not dark.”
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