‘Made in Japan!’ PGA Show puts golf’s cultural differences on display

January 24, 2018

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. — The sun is starting to set here at PGA Show Demo Day, at the circular five-acre driving range at the Orange County National Golf Center, and it’s coming not a moment too soon for Tario Cham, a Canadian of Japanese ancestry who works in marketing for a Japanese club company called ONOFF. 

“We started this morning at three-thirty,” Cham said, a smile still plastered on his face despite the late hour. Still, he was sunburned and wind-whipped and looking forward to dinner.

If the driving range at Orange County National was a clock, with TaylorMade representing 12 o’clock, ONOFF was at 5:30, in a Demo Day section Cham referred to as “Little Tokyo.” ONOFF was sharing a cramped bit of green with two other Japanese golf companies, PRGR and Yamaha. They were bookended by Miura and Yonex, two other Japanese clubmakers with global views.

Cham and some of his colleagues are staying in an Airbnb rental house in ChampionsGate, his first experience in an American gated community. At dinner on Monday night, 13 men and three women representing different Japanese manufacturers gathered at the house for a communal dinner. They started at seven and finished three hours later. They spoke Japanese and some English. They smoked, the few smokers there, outside on the patio. They drank Stella Artois. They ate korma they cooked themselves.

“Japanese korma,” Cham said, refining his answer for me. Korma, of course, is a dish most associated with India. “That’s what we do in Japan,” Cham said. “We take something from another culture and make it our own. That’s what we’ve done in golf!” You could see a light bulb rising from his hatted head.

The purpose of Demo Day is to get people in the golf business — tastemakers and thought leaders with PGA of America money clips — to get with all that is new-and-improved in golf equipment, apparel and technology. Each of the giants — your TaylorMades, your Titleists, your Callaways — makes some grand gesture to set it apart and invite you in. An appearance from a long-drive champ. A draft beer.

But in Cham’s neighborhood, the differences were subtle, vaguely Eastern. A Yamaha representative who spoke modest English motioned me to a newly vacant hitting bay with a grand sweep of his hand, then gathering the broken tees in what we would call a catcher’s squat. A recording device measured swing speeds not in miles per hour but in kilometers per hour. (Japan has been metric for almost 100 years.) All the representatives I spoke to were versed in the histories of their companies. One person explained to me how it came to be that Yamaha made pianos, motorcycles and golf clubs. (Different chairmen with different interests.) How Yonex went from badminton to tennis to golf — you can see that progression, right? 

Cham told me that ONOFF was a “lifestyle brand,” one that wanted to preach the message of being a golfer whether you are on the course or off the course. That really struck a chord with me because I have observed in recent years that our Tour heroes (some of them) will do what they can to distance themselves from the game when they step off the 18th green. T-shirts in the airport, tattoos in discreet places, tailgating on Saturdays, in the parking lot at fill-in-the-blank State hours before game time. Golf is their job but not their life. That’s all foreign to Tario Cham.

“Our motto is ‘Golf matters,’” he told me. “We believe golf is about having fun, trying hard, playing by the rules, having good sportsmanship, loving nature.” He was rattling off this list, and I think I might have missed an attribute or two. His smile never died.

“How did you do that?” I asked. There was something almost poetic — certainly timeless — about what he said and the passion with which he said it.

“I wrote it!” Cham said.

We spoke of various other things. He said the different manufacturers from Japan all got along well. No fist fights. Not even close. Japanese korma. Italian beer. Clean Indoor Air Act smoking.

“We all try to learn from each other,” he said. “We all use each other’s products. We’re all doing the same thing. Japan is a small country. We’re trying to take our Japanese golf products and find homes for them elsewhere in the world. We’re selling our technology, our commitment to excellence. Made in Japan!”