Before I left Tokyo, a friend of mine told me about the Tsu Country Club located in Mie prefecture, that it was ‘A links design in a parkland setting’, as unusual as that sounds it resonated with me as I played the course in brilliant autumn sunshine.
Having grown up on the links courses of Ireland, this course looked little like them at first glance, but at times, on elevated tees you could see the layout gave a nod to links design; a lot of subtle nuances in the rolling fairways naturally occurring in the sandier lands of home, the contours accentuated in the morning dew, some dark walled bunkers; reminiscent of the dark peat and railway sleepers of home. Yet, move your eyes up and you are flanked with lush forest and majestic rolling hills. Swaying in the gentle breeze; the cedar, pine and bamboo all working together for a visual feast. And feast my eyes I did, on this unique and utterly beautiful course.
If you have ever been to Mie prefecture in the southwest region of Japan, you would know what a unique and wonderful place it is. The prefecture sits on a honeycombed coastline full of islands, sheltered bays, inlets and islands, and boast some of the richest fishing grounds in the country. But it’s the golf I am after, and today Tsu Country Club who ranks 2nd on the must-play courses of Mie according to Golf in Japan and was about to give me a good work out, a few surprises and an unforgettable Japan golfing experience.
Katada lodge & Villa
It was already dark when I arrived at the club. I was directed to the newly opened Katada lodge & Villa, which consists of a magnificent Japanese-style villa overlooking the 18th green, flanked by a wooden restaurant, styled in the same vein, and behind them a longer building, housing double size
I was greeted and warmly welcomed by the Kojima family, generational owners of Tsu Country Club and standard-bearers for a new wave of International-friendly golf courses in Japan. Their golf and stay concept is a simple and powerful one: It should be a unique and personal experience. This is evident when my playing partners and I sat down for dinner in the restaurant. Sitting with us was the Kojima family themselves, the chefs busy in the open kitchen preparing a wonderful Kaiseki meal (an array of
traditional seasonal dishes) and came out and served each personally, explaining what it is and how it was prepared. Kojima-San also explained his love for sharing good meals with us in English when he said: ‘Good family and friends, good food, good golf…. happy life!’ I couldn’t have agreed more. Word has it he often cooks and prepares the meals himself along with his staff, but today he sat with us; an affable host, full of tales of his own golf journeys overseas and wonderful insights into Japan and the wonderful golf courses throughout the islands.
As for the food… well, the Sake was flowing and you will forgive me for not recounting the name of each dish, but the memory of what a delicious meal it was- lingers. Fresh seafood; sashimi and cooked shellfish, garnished naturally with soy, salt and wasabi. The roast beef was succulent and tender Matsuzaka beef, all accompanied by the most fresh and fragrant local vegetables and herbs along with as you would expect; gentle miso soup, and rice cooked in a traditional clay pot which adds so much more flavor. We wrapped up with a deliciously light cheese cake and hot Japanese tea.
We were very thankful for this delicious, tranquil, balanced and thoroughly enjoyable meal.
When we ate, drank and spoke our full, we strolled outside for some star gazing, a small glowing and hypnotic fire was outside, after a quick night cap we made our way to our rooms; mine a double room, neatly appointed with small desk, a wooden sliding door to separate the two beds and a stylish toilet and shower. After a solid and replenishing sleep, we awoke early to a glorious bluebird-sky morning. On Kojima San’s recommendation the night before, we walked the 18th fairway next to our hotel barefoot, the sensation adding a deeper connection to the wonderful environment. Breakfast was in the hotel restaurant again and a simple meal of rice, fish and pickled vegetables which had us ready for the golf adventure waiting. We met our caddy, a bubbly and fiery veteran who had us laughing at her classic one-liners particularly after an errant shot!
The course opened in 1990, and is designed by Japan golfing legend Masashi ‘Jumbo’ Ozaki, his goal was to create a beautiful yet challenging course. Influenced by many of the overseas designs he had played, he wanted to break free from the design trend that was happening in Japan at that time- of making easy courses- optimized for speedy rounds by keeping holes short, with shallow bunkering and limiting the chance of OB from the tees. Not to say that the course cannot be enjoyed by all level of golfers- they actually have 5 tee options to suit every level of player.
The opening hole at Tsu is a stunning par 4, meandering to the right of a large hill, with OB if you go too straight and long so a fade with driver or a layup with an iron is required. Guarding the green is a large bunker which two of us found, proving quite a challenge with the elevated lip. Speaking of bunkers, I think I was in most of them on this course, but after a fair-enough bogey, we ventured to the par 3 second. About 200 yards from the blues (back tees) this hole offers a challenge with a great chasm in front of the tee box, but after a great tee shot and a birdie- I was hungry for more.
The next stretch proved difficult with but a lot of fun, number 3 a lengthy par 4 with a massive green proving a bit of a brute and # 4 a chicaning par 5 with some hidden ravines also got the better of us, but even though we were discovering with vigor all the hazards on the course, the condition and playability of the course was perfect. In particular, the greens were around 10 on the stimp and very true. The par three 6th was a personal favorite (pictured above), from the back tees you have a slightly elevated tee shot over water to a protruding green, I particularly liked the dark brickwork of the lake wall, giving it a very European feel.
Another epic hole is the 9th which is an uphill par 4. You don’t want a fade here as there is all sorts of danger with a large bunker and deep ravine on the right. The cool thing about this hole was the rather epic bunker guarding the green which is about 3 meters deep! We had a lot of fun taking videos of each other trying (and succeeding ) in getting out. After some tasty up and down sand saves our caddy informed us it was time for lunch.
As it was quite a warm day, I welcomed the AC inside the clubhouse and enjoyed a stroll around- having missed it the day before, most clubhouses have some memorabilia adorning the walls, but Tsu takes the biscuit with a classic MG roadster in the lobby and a transparent baby-grand piano in the hall! But that was nothing compared to the spectacle that was awaiting us when we sat for the full teppanyaki (hot plate) course lunch.
Teppan lunch: Get ready!
The meal the previous evening was a real treat, and equally so was this. After a delicious soup and salad appetizer, an entrée of some freshly grilled vegetables followed by another entree of scallops which were wonderfully prepared in front of us by our own chef; Maeda San. The scallops were buttery fresh heaven, surrounded by figs and were accompanied by some fresh Maguro tuna. That would have been enough for me but the seemingly endless meal was about to crescendo when appeared some of the best Matsuzaka beef I have ever tasted, complete with flambé by Chef Tanaka! after the succulent steak, we were wooed by the local melon- cut into large slices for dessert.
The back 9
floating to the 10th tee, I wondered how we would fair after such a large meal, but to my surprise, I played so much better, relaxed and mellow- I thoroughly enjoyed the back 9.
Again, the back 9 starts with a par 4, its slight dogleg and thankfully has some space on the left, needed after I pulled my drive. I hit a utility to the bunker in front of the green, but managed to get it up and down for a feel-good par.
For the back 9, the feature hole I really liked was another par 3, it’s the kind of hole you would only find in Japan. The thing I liked about the 227-yard 15th hole is what you see when you step onto the tee. There are 3 split levels descending to the hole, massive mature forest surrounds the hole giving an amphitheater-like feel, to the right; a steep ravine and to the left a natural rocky outcrop demanding attention and finally, three large bunkers surrounding the green providing even more drama to the shot.
Was it the drama of the hole that I loved or the fact that I produced my shot of the day, I am not sure, but when I hit the green with a crisp 3 wood I felt like I was getting the swing of things
The 16th and 17th are two tricky par 4s, although not long, are uphill and offer plenty of challenges by way of bunkering and hilly Knowles with heavy rough- to be avoided.
Lastly came to the 18th, having walked it in the morning I knew how well manicured this exceptional par 5 is, two rolling fairways separated by a stunning bunker complex give plenty of drama. The new Kadata lodge perched behind the green calls you home and offers the perfect vista to finish the round out. I’ll definitely be back to have another go of this beautiful course, but it’s the food, accommodation and wonderful Japanese hospitality of Tsu Country Club and Mie which will have me coming back all the sooner.
Information and booking:
Address: 30, Hasemachi Katada, Tsu City, Mie Prefecture 514-0077, Japan