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Original Issue

A Big Yen for British Courses

The White Lighthouse that looms over the 9th tee at Turnberry's Ailsa course has for decades been warning ships of the rocky Scottish shore. Today the beacon also flashes a very different message: The Japanese have landed. A keen interest in golf and pockets full of yen have brought Japanese investors to the game's native land.

The first move was made in England in 1984, when the printing group Kosaido bought a Hampshire course called Old Thorns, a deal that worried some of Britain's golfing gentry. Two years ago, a Tokyo company bought the classic Turnberry Hotel and Golf courses and established the first Japanese foothold in Scotland. Concern over the Japanese investments became more acute in February 1988, when the Seibu Saison Group acquired a substantial interest in the Old Course Hotel at St. Andrews, just a pitching wedge away from the most famous 18 holes in golf.

If St. Andrews is the Mecca of golf, then Turnberry is the game's Medina. Set by the Firth of Clyde in Ayrshire, the resort is dominated by a majestic Edwardian hotel that perches on a ridge overlooking two golf courses—the Ailsa and the Arran—gently rolling stretches of pale green pocked with deep bunkers and bordered by windswept patches of dune grass. Turnberry, which was first developed at the turn of the century, gained international acclaim in 1977 when it hosted the British Open for the first time and two guys named Watson and Nicklaus staged one of the game's greatest battles. It was also the venue for the 1986 British Open, scene of Greg Norman's only major win.

The Japanese came to town the year after Norman's victory, when Hitoshi Matsuura, the chief executive officer of Nitto Kogyo, a golf-course management company, paid nearly $25 million for the two courses and the 115-room hotel. Many were convinced that with the Japanese in charge, Turnberry's charm and tradition would soon be lost. Not so. Service at the hotel remains efficient and formal, all tasks carried out with a Scottish accent. The golf courses are as lovely and unforgiving as ever. Every evening at seven a bagpiper plays a strathspey as he circles the hotel. And haggis, Scotland's national dish, is still being served in the hotel restaurant.

Turnberry isn't Matsuura's first investment in golf. Nitto Kogyo owns and operates 26 other clubs in Japan and the U.S. Says Saburo Sawamura, public relations director for the company, "We wanted to acquire a club with the kind of history people can respect, and a good profitable record, to be the symbol of Nitto's golf courses within Japan and overseas."

Such prestige is very important to Japanese companies, and that alone should keep Turnberry as it is. Part of the place's cachet is its status as a British Open course. Matsuura certainly won't do anything to jeopardize that. Nor would he want to alienate North American golfers, who make up some 35% of the visitors to Turnberry, by far the largest group. The number of Japanese guests has climbed from 1% in 1985 to 5% in 1989, but that can be attributed as much to the powerful yen as to the new ownership.

Old Thorns has little of Turnberry's class and none of its tradition. But that's not to say the course isn't a pleasant place to visit. Set among the lush hills and piny forests of Hampshire, Old Thorns opened in 1982 as a private club. Kosaido bought the course in 1984 and opened it to the public a year later. The new proprietors weren't bashful about their ownership or about catering specifically to Japanese customers. They built a second clubhouse, the Japanese Centre, a two-story brick structure surrounded by traditional Japanese gardens. Inside are communal baths, a yakitori bar, conference facilities and five guest rooms, including one with tatami matting and paper screens.

Kosaido also constructed tennis courts, a solarium, a sauna and an indoor swimming pool, and bought 40 electric golf carts. "They've invested a lot of money and turned it into a terrific business," says Peter Alliss, a golf commentator for BBC and ABC television.

Success has come primarily because Old Thorns opened its gates to a group that is often rejected by most British golfing preserves. Some 26,000 Japanese work in London, but getting on a course in England isn't easy for them. There aren't many public facilities, and to play at most clubs a nonmember must have a current handicap. Many Japanese rarely play at home in Japan, and they can't get a handicap without playing.

Old Thorns has something of a split personality—part British, part Japanese. The two cultures coexist under a sort of golf club apartheid. One clubhouse and restaurant appeals to English tastes, the other to Japanese. The players during the week are predominantly British, but by Saturday noon most have mysteriously disappeared.

More British courses will be snapped up by the Japanese, but the trend shouldn't be cause for alarm. Kosaido has turned Old Thorns into a fine public course that provides clubless Japanese and British duffers with a place to play. And at grand old Turnberry, things go on as they have for most of this century.