Take a Step Back in Time
Mother Nature’s role in the evolution of the Old Course at St Andrews aside, the most important era in the history of golf course architecture was undoubtedly the first four decades of the twentieth century. Known within the industry simply as the Golden Age, the period was highlighted by the construction of a flood of courses that are now considered classic. It was during this time that the English gems of Sunningdale and Wentworth were born. In Scotland, Gleneagles and Royal Dornoch came into existence. Across the Atlantic, Augusta National, Winged Foot, Cypress Point and Pine Valley – among many, many others – were laid out. Australia had Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath, while South Africans enjoyed themselves on the links of Humewood and Durban Country Club. Even Argentina got in on the act with the establishment of two cracking layouts at the prestigious Jockey Club in Buenos Aires. Great courses, one and all.
But what of Asia? The common perception that golf is new to the Far East is understandable, but actually false. And while India and Sri Lanka boast the oldest courses at Royal Calcutta and Royal Colombo - which were inaugurated in 1829 and 1879 respectively - it is in Japan, at the courses designed by Charles Hugh Alison, where you’ll find Asia’s finest contribution to this groundbreaking age.
Alison’s story is an interesting one. Unlike his contemporaries - men like AW Tillinghast, Donald Ross, George Crump and Alister MacKenzie - his is not a name that many recreational golfers will be immediately familiar with. During his time as junior partner to the legendary Harry Colt, Alison collaborated on such noteworthy designs as the Seaside Course at Sea Island and the original eighteen holes at Long Island’s Timber Point. The unsung Englishman is even credited with helping to complete four remaining holes at New Jersey’s Pine Valley - generally regarded as the best course in the world - after Crump died in 1918. But it was in Japan, a country that few western architects of the era ever visited, that Alison really made his mark. During a six-month stay in the country, Alison designed four courses, including the Fuji Course at Kawana Hotel, a spectacular clifftop jewel on the Izu Peninsula two hours south of Tokyo; Naruo, a splendid almost heathland-style course near Osaka that brings to mind the aforementioned Sunningdale; and the most famous of all: venerable Hirono, Alison’s rolling masterpiece on the outskirts of the port city of Kobe which has been a mainstay of magazine polls’ top 100 golf courses in the world for decades.
Noted for their small greens and vast, irregularly shaped bunkers (known in Japan simply as "Alison’s," or "Arissons," depending on the accent of the Japanese you speak to), Alison’s courses are the complete antithesis of the majority of courses built today; neither especially long nor particularly reliant on water, the sweeping, well-protected fairways and subtle features of the greens complexes make them a true shot-makers delight.
Although Hirono requires a member’s introduction (the club is so private it doesn’t even stretch to a website), both Naruo and Kawana welcome visitors year-round. Make the effort - you won’t be disappointed.
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