KAWAGOE, Japan — It was both unnerving and exhilarating that, as of last week, there was basically nothing to see online about Kasumigaseki Country Club, the Olympics host course. No drone footage on YouTube, very little photography. Really just a Golf Channel interview with Bradley Klein, an architecture expert.
Klein’s PGA Tour comp for Kasumigaseki was Quail Hollow, the North Carolina host of the Wells Fargo Championship. That gives us some idea, but really not much. So walking the course Sunday afternoon was a bit like cracking open a new book you’ve heard only a little about. It could be good, it could be average, it’s bound to surprise you either way. Thanks to a couple gracious hosts, Tommy Fleetwood and his caddie Ian Finnis, we all learned a bit about the course together. Here are nine thoughts on the track and some other early observations from Kasumigaseki Country Club:
1. What’s the course like?
That’s a tough question. One that Tommy and I tried to answer together. I asked him for his best Tour comp, and he looked genuinely unsure, taking a solid minute to answer. It’s not quite like Quail Hollow, because “Quail is much more demanding off the tee.” It plays a bit like Harbour Town in that it’s not driver everywhere, “but not so tricked up.” The routing of the holes and even the tall, leaning pine and cypress trees make it feel a bit like Riviera, but we both knew this isn’t Riv. It has deep bunkers that make every miss intriguing, and just one water hazard that comes into play, on the 18th.
Fleetwood’s caddie, Finnis, thought it has a Spyglass Hill vibe to it. I can certainly see that. The heat and the zoysia grass certainly remind me of Bellerive, the 2018 PGA Championship host outside St. Louis.
How’s that for a lengthy, non-definitive answer?
2. Cliché time: The course is in great shape
While walking the front nine Sunday, I came across Kerry Haigh and David Garland, who were out analyzing hole locations. Haigh, the Chief Championships Officer for the PGA of America, is basically the course setup whisperer all PGA Tour players love. He was testing each green the way you and I would: with a putter and three balls, rapping strokes to imaginary holes. I asked if they liked what they were seeing, Haigh jumped in immediately with that booming English accent: “Spectacular. Couldn’t be much better.” I have to agree.
There’s no reason why the course shouldn’t be in great shape, but you just never know until you arrive on property. Kasumigaseki hasn’t seen much for rainfall the last two weeks, so the fairways were a bit crispy Sunday. As crispy as zoysia grass can feel, anyways. Rain will soften the grounds throughout the week, and thankfully, zoysia can take on plenty of rain.
3. Rahm’s Covid test is the talk of the town
And shouldn’t it be? Man, this virus is confusing. Rahm apparently failed his third of three tests required before tripping to Japan, then took three more tests and each turned up positive as well. All of this a full seven weeks since his incident at the Memorial. When Adri Arnaus, the other Spanish golfer in the field, arrived on the range Monday, he was immediately peppered for the details from New Zealand’s Ryan Fox and Zimbabwe’s Scott Vincent. Everyone is confused, Arnaus included. “We think it’s from the last time he got Covid,” he said. Either way, Jorge Campillo will arrive to represent Spain later this week.
4. Visor Tommy
First seeing him from afar, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Is that … Tommy Fleetwood … Golf Jesus … wearing a visor? It was. And his headgear was one of the first things we discussed. He was rocking a headband beneath it to pull his locks back, and the Team Great Britain visor resting on top of it all.
“Do you like it?” he asked as I walked up. From the sound of it, he’d asked a few people already. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. I told him I needed a bit more convincing. If he wins a medal in a visor, can he go back to the ball cap life? I’m really not sure. But you have to respect the man for experimenting with his look.
5. My favorite holes: 6 and 14
No. 6 is a tasty little par-4 that probably isn’t a driver hole. Probably. If that’s the club, it had better be a cut shot. (If Rory bombs driver over everything, I may have to quit the biz.) There’s a fairway bunker in the 305-yard landing zone along the left side. Beyond that, the green is guarded by three tall pines that only get in the way when you’ve missed your tee shot to the left. Hopefully tournament organizers stick a hole over there at some point this week. The club choices will be fun to watch. You could see everything from a cut driver down to a laid up 6-iron.
No. 14 is a 625-yard beast, with a long, deep fairway bunker along the left side. The fairway slopes to the right, so it’s either a 3-wood short of the trouble or a driver that goes absolutely straight. Fleetwood mashed 3-wood to a good spot, but then hit his layup through the fairway, which meanders left to right and right to left two separate times. Arnaus blew a drive into trouble left and then another one into more trouble right. Is 3-wood the play? Driver might be the play, and you take your punishment once you find it. “That bunker is actually not a bad spot,” Finnis said. A true three-shotter for the pros is always fun.
6. It’s quiet out here!
PGA Tour players have definitely gotten used to playing in front of fans. But we are a long way from the scenes of Kiawah Island and Royal St. George’s. With no fans in attendance and about a 90-minute commute from the Olympic Village, there’s not much for sound-makers out at Kasumigaseki.
You’ve got Paul Casey rolling some putts by his lonesome. The German pair of Maximillian Kiefer and Hurly Long silently striping it alongside each other. The loudest action thus far comes wherever the Japanese players are playing. The local press follow their stars Hideki Matsuyama and Nasa Hataoka avidly in the States, and are understandably out in full force this week.
Winning a medal in front of no fans will be weird. And tough in its own way. Walking up the 18th on Sunday, Arnaus turned to me and asked, “Are we really not going to have fans?” as though he just hadn’t believed all the reports thus far. When I told him yes, no spectators, you could see the disappointment wash over him. No one wanted it to be this way, and the empty grandstands are a reminder of that.
7. The international driving range is a delight
There might not be fans or a ton of buzz at the course, but it certainly looks like an Olympic competition. The Olympic Rings are situated throughout the course, and competitors were posing for photos with them. The flag of every competitor flying near the clubhouse in an epic, winding line between the chipping and putting greens. And then there’s the national regalia every pro is decked out in.
The Americans made their own little flag, with Justin Thomas rocking red, Collin Morikawa supplying the white and Xander Schauffele capping it off with blue. Over on the putting green were five matching gents from South Korea: Two players — Sungjae Im and Si Woo Kim — two caddies and one Korean golf legend, K.J. Choi. Mexico’s Gaby Lopez wore all white with green and red accents on the range, no caddie around, grinding for the second-straight day. Her competition doesn’t start for another 10. Where can you see this much national pride? Only at the Olympics.
8. Mother Nature is Olympics-bound
It’s hot. It’s going to be hot. It’s going to feel like summertime in Memphis, another 35-degrees-latitude city, where all these Tour pros will head next week. The feels-like temperature at the course reached 97 degrees each of the last two days. And the only reason it’ll cool down is because Tropical Storm Nepartak is on the way.
It was news to me that Tropical Storms ascend to ‘Typhoon’ status in the Eastern Hemisphere, not hurricanes. Thankfully, the course seems like it’ll be on the edge of the storm’s path, which just means plenty of rain and some wind, at least during the men’s competition. The 7,600-yard course will play a bit softer, then, and longer.
9. More golfers were at the Opening Ceremony than we thought
We knew Lopez and Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti were there as flag-bearers, but Germany’s duo Kiefer and Long also walked during the ceremony. Same for Poland’s Adrian Meronk. Arnaus flew in early from Dubai to take part as well. He said it obviously didn’t feel the same way it looked on television, but added that his highlight of the night was meeting Spanish basketball legend Pau Gasol.
“He’s still playing at this age,” Arnaus said of the 41-year-old hooper. “And the good thing is now he’s playing golf.”
Like many people, the 7-footer took an interest in the game during the pandemic and now is fully hooked. Competitive people are always a match for this game. He and Arnaus had a lengthy conversation during which Gasol peppered him with endless golf questions. Yes, Gasol is in the market for a TrackMan.