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From America to Japan, Alabama Superintendent’s first year at top-end Japanese Club.

Posted on April 30, 2014 at 5:30 PM

Andrew McDaniel believes he is the only foreign Golf Course Superintendent in Japan, outside US military golf courses.

Andrew is from Alabama. He went to Japan for three months as an intern at Mississippi State University in the summer of 2001. After graduating later that year he returned to Japan and has been there ever since.

He worked alongside Bernhard’s Asia Business Development Manager, Steve Wilson with ETS Japan for 3 years before moving on to work as a Superintendent for a Japanese owned course in Chiba Prefecture, and then for a golf course management company based in Osaka. Steve says of him, “Andrew is a talented guy and true turfgrass professional who’s successfully working in one of the most difficult turfgrass climates. Not only is that in a challenging country anyway, but Japan is also currently suffering from a depressed golf market.”

“Following my internship I bounced around different courses for a few years advising, importing new grass varieties and helping with technical aspects, so lots of travel and a chance to look at this beautiful country.

Once I got married and had a child I felt I wanted to find a home-based job,” Andrew explains. He and his Japanese wife Yuka and their two year-old son live in Fukuoka.

“Just over a year ago I joined Keya Golf Club, near Fukuoka City in Southern Japan. Keya is a lovely family run course that hosts an annual Japan Professional Tournament.

Two of the third generation grandsons run the course and their father is the President and this year the club will celebrate their 50th anniversary.”

 

What is Keya Golf Club like?

“The course is next to the ocean, 40 minutes out of the city of Fukuoka. The entire course, including the greens, is Zoysia grass which is rare outside of Japan and becoming so in Japan these days.

We are the only golf course on the men’s Japan Tour that is still played on Zoysia greens. The blades are so stiff that it is hard to get the ball to roll consistently. We keep our mowing heights at around 3mm, but it can get grainy. Although the Japanese players are used to it, it is difficult for anyone to read, so you really need to know the greens to putt well. You have to be very careful when putting, as the ball will start to move around at the end of the roll. Many of our players really enjoy the challenge of putting on Zoysia grass.

Lots of courses are replacing their Zoysia grass greens with bentgrass or some of the newer Bermuda grass varieties, but we made the decision to leave it as it is because it is historical and unusual and everyone knows us for it now. It’s a challenge.

Before I came here I had absolutely no interest in this type of grass for greens, but then I started working with it and find it’s a nice challenge for me to get the ball to roll true.”

 

You have some extreme weather conditions in Japan don’t you?

“The climate in Japan is difficult, yes. From Tokyo to the south of the island we have the extremes: freezing conditions in the winter, up to 37 degrees in the summer with 90 % humidity and the rainy season just before the summer brings with it lots of diseases and insect pressure. We do get typhoons usually around August through to October, but strangely they are not as bad as what you may see in other parts of the world. We just get an awful lot of rain.

Last year during my first tournament at the club we had 495 ml of rain in one week. Imagine that! We managed to get three days play in and it was a successful tournament, but it was a challenge to keep the greens and water filled bunkers in good condition.

We used the grinders for a couple of weeks leading up to and during that first tournament and they left them with us for a while longer, until our annual pro tournament. Once the mechanic had got used to the borrowed grinders he didn’t want to let them go, so we bought our own set of 4000’s. It’s the Zoysia grass that particularly benefits from having the grinders and they do make a big difference.

We grind every week and the players have noticed the difference straight away, with rave reviews more or less every day. They don’t know why or how things turned around in a year but the quality of cut is there for everyone to see.”

 

What other challenges did you face moving to and working in Japan?

 I couldn’t speak a word of Japanese when I came here 12 years ago. I went to language classes but didn’t learn very much. It has been hard because no one speaks English, but working day to day you have to learn it and so you do. I suppose it took me around 3-4 years to speak it well enough to communicate comfortably where I don’t have to rely on others to help me out.

There are different dialects between the cities, there’s business Japanese and casual Japanese. Many foreigners have translators and don’t bother to learn the language but for me it is an essential part of my job and my life. Learning the language of the country you live in I feel also helps you develop a certain respect from your staff and the people you work with on a daily basis. There will always be a type of barrier in the relationship if you continuously use a translator.

As well as the language differences the culture is so completely different from USA where I grew up and I do still make mistakes, but people understand and help me out or look past it. It is a polite and respectful culture. I like that it is so clean, no one drops litter and it is safe. People take care of their elders and I like their traditional values.

I go back to the states 2 or 3 times a year and it’s very good to see family and friends and drop in on people. I have just got back from my first trip to the Masters in Georgia and found it an unbelievable experience, a bit like Disney in a weird way. It is in another league and on a scale hard to imagine, and so much better than anything I ever expected. I loved it and the whole experience, but I was very happy to get back to Japan.

My home in the city is close to the beach and parks. I have nearly 100 restaurants on my doorstep. The station is 3 minutes away and the trains are the best in the world. Every train is on time every time and they are so safe that even very young children travel alone. There are no guns here and we feel safe. In fact I have never felt threatened, ever.”

 

Japan’s golf industry has suffered as much as any during the recession. Have you noticed any improvements recently?

“Japan has some 2,400 golf courses and built hundreds of courses during the bubble, from the mid 80’s, and in the depressed climate there was no way they’d all succeed. I think the guys in the middle were hurt the worst. The lower end clubs rub along cutting costs and reducing staff and overheads. The top-end clubs seem to have kept their members although they have been mindful of cost cutting.

I think what we should be doing as an industry is really encouraging youngsters into the game. The majority of our players in Japan are older and the youth are our future.

We are fortunate to be a unique club. We have around 45,000 rounds a year and the average greens fee is approximately $170. We are a well-known, high-end club and people want to come and play here.”