Search For a Tee Time May Lead To Tokyo

From an L.A. Times business section story on the semi-revival of Japan's golf industry:

Golf is booming in South Korea, trickling down from the elite to a new generation of golfers in their 20s and 30s who are flooding the country's courses — all 147 of them. Problem is, it does not take long in a country of 50 million people to flood that many courses. Teeing off, especially on weekends, has become a challenge for all but the best-connected businessmen and government officials.

Fortunately for golfers such as Sung, there are plenty of good-quality and relatively empty courses just an hour or so away. By air. In Japan.

Japan is bursting with golf courses, 2,458 to be exact, and they're becoming alternative links for South Korean golfers desperate enough to fly abroad for a chance to drive. Sung has made the hop by plane to Tokyo from Seoul three times in the last two years, visiting Japan for a couple of days to play several rounds and take advantage of nearby hot springs.

In the last five years, Dallas-based Lone Star Funds and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. have been scooping up financially troubled Japanese golf courses, almost 200 between them. The firms are now the top two golf course owners in Japan, where golf is a $10-billion-a-year business.

Both set up management subsidiaries that aim to turn a profit by buying supplies such as sand and fertilizer in bulk, and employing American-style management techniques — slicker pro shops and carts instead of caddies to move golfers around the fairways faster. Clubs are reporting that the number of rounds played is rising, and both Goldman Sachs and Lone Star have filed applications with the Tokyo Stock Exchange to take their Japanese golf subsidiaries public in the next few months.

The new American management is also democratizing Japanese golf. The two companies have lowered greens fees and let nonmembers onto once-private courses, have encouraged more women to play and have persuaded the Japanese to start rounds at once unheard-of early-morning hours.