Fergus Bisset: Our man in Japan

Fergus has travelled to Japan to see the Asian Amateur Championship. Here he keeps us updated with progress.

Fergus Bisset is at the Asian Amateur Championship at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Japan. He's reporting on progress below:

Touchdown - 8th Oct, 8.30am

Well, this is all a bit different. Working for Golf Monthly, I've been fortunate to travel fairly extensively but, generally, the trips I've taken have been to places I've found familiar - the US, Canada, Spain etc. Countries where I've understood the language, the food, the culture and customs and where I've been able to fit in without too much effort. In Japan, I'm a novice. It's rather exciting, like learning life from scratch. Even going to the loo is a novel experience here - Anyone who's sat on a Japanese toilet will know what I'm talking about.

Last night I took a walk out into the city where I'm staying (Kawagoe, about an hour's drive north west of Tokyo,) to get a bite to eat and see what was going on. It was bustling with all manner of activities taking place. Round the corner from my hotel I walked past an open fronted shop three stories high, where children were being taught rock climbing. I stopped in my tracks as my eye was caught by one youngster clinging from a hold on an overhang about 25 feet up. Thankfully he was far less concerned than I was and he scrambled back down the wall like Spiderman.

I went into one of the many arcades where rows of people were playing pachinko. It's played on something that looks a bit like an upright pinball machine. You have to try and manipulate the path of hundreds of little metal balls as they drop through the mechanism. I stood transfixed by the monotonous chink, chink of metal and, rather odd, high-octane, dance music booming out from speakers overhead before deciding to have a go. After a couple of attempts I elected to beat a strategic retreat as I could feel myself becoming addicted to something I had no chance of mastering - I already have golf to deal with after all.

Trying to choose somewhere to eat was bamboozling with people attempting to entice me in from every restaurant, which seemed to be every second building. I took pot luck and went in somewhere. Of course, the menu was in Japanese and my waitress spoke no English so I took pot luck again and pointed at something at random. I was a little disappointed when a steak turned up as I'd hoped for something a little more authentic, though I guess it could have been worse.

A popular motor with the younger generation here seems to be the Suzuki Stingray - it could best be described as a "pimped up" version of Postman Pat's van, though most I've seen have been black rather than red. The key thing about it though is it's small - ideal for negotiating the narrow streets of Kawagoe and the traffic-crammed commuter routes.

Anyway I'll keep you posted on this blog about how things are going. I'll just update this one so scroll down and I might have written some more. I'll also be putting news stories up about how the tournament is progressing.

Tournament Essentials - 8th Oct, 12.30pm
The Event

It's a 72-hole strokeplay tournament with a cut after two rounds. The top-60 and ties go on to play the final two rounds. There are 34 Asia Pacific nations eligible to enter players and 28 are represented this week. The field this year is 118 with a maximum of six players from each country, save for the host nation Japan who have 10 entrants. 52 players who competed in last year's tournament have entered this year. A point of interest is that a father and son - Taimar and Hamza Amin from Pakistan are in the field.

As you would expect from an event where the R&A and The Masters are heavily involved, the organisation and running of this tournament is awesome on course and off. There's TV coverage being shown in 150 countries, each group has a scoreboard holder, there are draw sheets and course maps available to the public, the spectator routes are well thought out and there are plenty of marshals, ball spotters and rules officials to ensure everything runs smoothly. Admission is free for spectators.

The Plan

The tagline for the championship is "Creating Heroes." The R&A and The Masters' aim to encourage the elite game in Asia as a means to attract young people into the sport. Masters Chairman Billy Payne cited Ryo Ishikawa as an example of a young, talented player who has inspired countless kids to take up the game.

The Course

The West Course at Kasumigaseki Country Club is a historic layout that opened in 1932. Designed by Selichi Inoue it hosted the Japan Opens of 1933, 1956 and 1995. It measures 6,887 yards with a par of 71.

It's an attractive, well-established track with firm fairways bounded by a diverse array of beautiful pine trees. The layout has something of the feel of one of the classic heathland tracks of the home counties. The greens appear to be fast yet receptive and there are some significant borrows to contend with. It's not a bomber's course and there are some good strategic holes to negotiate. The 12th is a good example - A towering pine sits in the middle of the fairway about 240 yards out, just where the hole turns to the right. Choose to go left of it and you'll be facing a longer shot in. Take the right side from the tee and you could be left with a short wedge shot in. But, water lurks just to the right of the fairway so anything that strays too far will be wet.

The Weather

October is supposed to be a pleasant time to visit Tokyo. The temperature and, more importantly, the humidity has begun to drop yet it's still mild enough for shirt sleeves and I've even seen the odd pair of shorts on the fairways - tut, tut. But, there is rain forecast over the weekend, hopefully it won't come to much.

The Youth

From my first stroll around the course to watch the action, it's apparent just how young the field is. The majority of players I watched could just about pass for juniors. It's indicative of the changing/changed face of amateur golf worldwide. At the top level it's now a testing ground for the best youngsters before they turn professional. There are an ever-decreasing number of amateurs in an event like this who are not full time golfers.

The Pace of Play

It's relatively quick, I followed the three-ball of Jake Higginbottom from Australia, Fe-Hao Yang from Chinese Taipei and William Sjaichudin from Indonesia for their entire back nine and it was pretty much bang on the two hour mark. It's noticeable how much less procrastination there is than in the pro game.

How They Play

You might expect the young bloods to play with aggressive abandon, I certainly did. So I was surprised to see how sensible and strategic most of their golf is. Plenty of 3-woods and irons from tees and players shying away from attacking pins and aiming at the heart of the green instead. On the 13th, in the group I mentioned above, Fe-Hao went for the flag tucked on the back left of the green with a bunker waiting to swallow anything short or right. He just missed his shot, ended in the sand and was short-sided. Higginbottom played well right of the flag and gave himself a reasonably easy mid-length putt. Both looked to be good swingers of the club but it was clear why the Australian was three-under-par and Fe-Hao was 10 over.

It's the taking part that counts - 8th Oct, 2.45pm

Yosuke Asaji of Japan and Singapore's Zhiqun Lam currently lead the way on six-under-par with a raft of others hot on their heels. A little further down the leadeboard - 62 shots in fact - lies last placed Tumenjargal Shagdar of Mongolia.

Shagdar fired a disappointing 99 in round one and must have hoped for better things as he stood on the first tee at 8.03 this morning. He began reasonably well and sat at just seven-over-par for the day through the first five holes. Then disaster struck when he stumbled to a nine at the par-5 6th to crash to 11-over.

But, like all golfing greats, Shagdar displayed he has the capability to bounce back and the Mongolian Number 1 rallied with three straight pars to the turn. This was the Shagdar we had expected to turn up, a model of consistency and solidity.

Unfortunately things fell apart completely for the veteran on the back nine. There wasn't a par in sight for Tumenjargal on the run for home and triple bogeys add up fast. He was back in 53 for a second consecutive 99.

Shagdar can console himself with the fact his name does not now appear at the very bottom of the leaderboard. Atthachai Jaichalad of Thailand now holds that dubious honour as he's withdrawn with a shoulder injury.

Brief encounter - 9th Oct, 11.30am

In the bus on the way to the course this morning I sat next to Taimar Amin, the father in the father/son combination playing in this event for Pakistan. He's 58, "One year younger than Tom Watson was at Turnberry," he joked.

Unfortunately, Taimar missed the cut (which fell at nine-over-par) by two shots, but his son Hamza played an excellent second round of 70 to lie in the top-20 going into the weekend.

Taimar is a former winner of the individual title in the old Asian team championship - a forerunner of this event. "If the same prizes were on offer then, I'd have played in the Masters and perhaps the Open," he said. "It's amazing the opportunities available now."

In fact, Taimar has technically played in the Open. He competed in local final qualifying in 1974 when the Open was at Royal Lytham. He also narrowly missed qualifying for the US Open on two occasions. In the 1970s and 1980s, he regularly represented Pakistan in the World Cup.

"I remember playing with Hubert Green one year," he said. "In the first World Cup I played in 1975, I beat the eventual winner Johnny Miller in two out of the four rounds. Let's not talk about the other two rounds."

Taimar only received the call up for this event 10 days ago and he hasn't been playing regular competitive golf over the recent months. So to only narrowly miss the cut was a fine effort. In a tournament dominated by young, full time golfers, it's great to see one of the old guard still capable of giving the kids a run for their money. "If it was over a shorter course, then they would really be worried," he laughed.

Swinging in the rain - 9th Oct, 12.20pm

The third round is well underway and conditions are not pleasant. It's raining pretty heavily and the course is rather soggy.

Despite the precipitation, the signs are that the players are coping well and I can currently see eight men on the leaderboard who are under par. From the shots I've seen, the greens are a little more receptive and perhaps a little slower so, as long as the rain doesn't turn into a deluge, we could see the leaders go low.

Zhiqun Lam of Singapore leads the way by a single shot from Japan's Yosuke Asaji with 62 more still competing in the last two rounds.

I'm going to be watching the progress of last year's runner-up Eric Chun. With that performance, the Korean earned a place in IFQ for this year's Open Championship and he made the very most of it to secure a spot at St Andrews.

I was speaking with a Malaysian journalist yesterday who told me of Chun's tough upbringing. He actually grew up in Malaysia where his father oversaw his early golf career with an iron rod. If Eric played a bad round in a tournament, his father would refuse to drive him home. He'd force his son to walk, sometimes up to 20 miles.

Apparently other competitors would drive past Eric and offer to give him a lift but he would decline saying he needed to learn from his failures. Hopefully Eric has now passed his driving test as he's currently seven-over-par for the tournament and three-over for the day.

Rankings boost - Oct 9th, 2.50pm

With considerable world amateur ranking points on offer this week, there's a chance for some significant upward movement on the list for the top finishers. As it stands, Kieran Pratt is the highest ranked player in the top six on the leaderboard, he's at 37.

The man on fire this afternoon is Hideki Matsuyama. He's made five birdies in his first 10 holes and has moved into the lead on nine-under-par. Matsuyama is currently 544th on the World Amateur Golf Ranking. So, he's an unlikely winner. Not perhaps as unlikely though as overnight leader Zhiqun Lam. Coming into this event he sat at 864th on the ranking. To put that into some sort of context, there are 46 English players above Lam in the ranking. He's struggling a little today though and has fallen back into sixth place.

Leaders           World Ranking Matsuyama        544 Asaji               109 MacManus        119 Kyung-Hoon Lee 456 Pratt                37 Lam                 864

Clear skies - Oct 10th, 10.30am

Quite late last night I was prepared to bet every Yen left in my wallet that play would not take place today. It was possibly something to do with the fact we were in a place called "Beerosauras" but, mainly, it was because of the rain that had been teeming down on Kawagoe for almost 24 hours and was not scheduled to stop.

Luckily none of the journalists I was with were prepared to accept my wager because play started at 9.20 this morning. I'm not sure when the rain clouds dispersed but disperse they did and conditions now are pretty much ideal. The start of Japan's Satoshi Kodaira is evidence: he's scored four birdies in his first five holes to climb onto the first page of the leaderboard.

It promises to be a thrilling day and I can't wait to get out and watch these young guys battle for a spot in the Masters and IFQ for next year's Open. 18-year-old Hideki Matsuyama of Japan leads the way on 11-under-par and his nearest challenger is Tarquin MacManus of Australia who is three shots back.

Matsuyama is relatively inexperienced. He's not even the top ranked player on his University team. In his press conference yesterday afternoon he appeared a little nervous and confessed that the prospect of playing in Major championships made him feel, "out of his league." MacManus is a little older - a senior at the University of Arizona. He's had three years of the US Collegiate golfing system and has played numerous significant amateur events.

I'm going to stick my neck on the line and say I think MacManus will win today. The fact he's chasing Matsuyama will allow him to play aggressively and, if he can get off to a quick start, the young Japanese player might succumb to the pressure.

It may not be a two-horse race however. Yesterday Matsuyama shot a course record-equalling 65 to roar into the lead. If one of the chasing pack could match that number they could spring a surprise - Yosuke Asaji starts five-under-par, Kyung-hoon Lee is one worse and one more shot back is Kieran Pratt. They're not completely out of the running. Paul Lawrie came back from 10 shots behind to win the 1999 Open at Carnoustie.

It's unlikely that will happen though and I'm sticking with MacManus. But, judging by my attempted dead-cert bet on the washout, what do I know?

Minding their manners - Oct 10th, 11.35am

The Japanese people are incredibly polite and everything is done with a bow and a smile. Even the golf spectators here maintain their impeccable manners. Unlike at tournaments in the UK and Europe where the policy is, "every man for himself," and grown men will trample children to get a better view of Ernie Els, the viewing public here are extremely considerate. When the galleries stop to view the action, people look around to check they haven't spoiled someone else's view.

I can see another example of the Japanese people's politeness and patience from the windows of the Media Centre. On the lawn in front of the clubhouse is a stage where the Asian Amateur trophy is displayed between the Claret Jug and The Masters trophy. The fans are being given a chance to be photographed in front of them and there's an, orderly, single file queue stretching around the putting green. They haven't been told to do it, they just do. There, I've found a way the Brits and Japanese are similar - we like queuing.

Nature Watch - Oct 10th, 1.25pm

I just went out to catch the leaders play the end of the front nine. They're having a ding-dong battle with Matsuyama out in 33 and MacManus out in 32. The gap is down to just two as they head down the 10th.

In other news, I had a disturbing brush with the local wildlife. Taking a shortcut through the trees to the left of the ninth hole I walked straight into an enormous spider's web. No joke, it was like a scene out of Lord of the Rings as I struggled to free myself. At the centre of the web was a pretty large (the size of a beer mat) and rather beautiful arachnid and he was very reluctant to leave his home even though it was now attached to me. Jessie (wife) would have passed out.

After an arduous and protracted battle I finally defeated my foe and shook him loose from my shirt. He scampered off back towards the base of his tree to begin reconstruction. I was left to pick cocooned flies and bits of cobweb-covered twig from my person.

Wrong - Oct 10th, 3.50pm

Just as with my weather forecast, I was totally wrong with my prediction on the outcome of the championship. Hideki Matsuyama looked cool as a cucumber the entire way round his final round of 67 and closed out victory in a convincing fashion. The 18-year-old delighted the home fans as he secured the title plus invitations to compete in next year's US Masters and International Final Qualifying for the 2011 Open. Good work Hideki.

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is Golf Monthly's resident expert on the history of the game and has written extensively on that subject. He is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and the history section of "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin , also of Golf Monthly. 

Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?