The origins of golf in Japan can be traced back over a century to a small private course in Kobe’s Rokko mountains. During the Meiji Period, many Europeans and Americans lived in the bay-front foreign settlement in Kobe, introducing various aspects of foreign culture into Japan.
The British-born trading merchant Arthur Hesketh Groom (1846–1918) built a summerhouse atop Mt. Rokko, an area he chose for its peace and quiet as a perfect location for social gatherings. There he built a four-hole golf course. Two years later, in 1903, he expanded the course to nine holes and founded the Kobe Golf Club, the first golf club in Japan.
During the approximately four-month-long winter, however, the top of Mt. Rokko was covered with snow. So in 1904 Groom’s friend and fellow trader William John Robinson built a six-hole course close to sea level, not far from downtown Kobe in the Uozaki Yokoya district, and established the Yokoya Golf Association. In 1914 it was relocated to Naruohama and the Naruo Golf Association was established with a nine-hole course.
The land was owned by one of Japan’s leading trading companies at the time, Suzuki Shoten. When circumstances forced the golf association’s dissolution, people in the company pleaded for the course to be saved for Robinson’s sake, and in 1920 a new club was formed. This was the start of the Naruo Golf Club.
But the course that Robinson took over was mostly weeds and puddles, and one could not even tell where the greens were. It started out with just three functioning holes that he and his supporters maintained themselves.
The Naruo course was steadily expanded, and in 1924 a full 18 holes were completed. But in 1927, severe economic constraints forced the course to be shortened to nine holes.
The Club members were desperate for a new course, so they entrusted its development to the Club’s most stalwart members, the Crane brothers—Joe E., Harry C. and Bertie E. Crane. Every weekend the brothers inspected candidate sites all over the Kansai area until they happened upon the location where the present course was built.
According to the “New Course Prospectus” kept by Joe E. Crane, they decided on this location for a number of reasons.
“This is an excellent site in terms of land price, course construction, and transportation convenience. It will enable us to build a championship course we can be proud of.”
The new course opened in 1930 as the Naruo–Inagawa course, and already the next year a big step was taken to improve it. That involved seeking and taking the advice of the famous British golf course designer Charles Hugh Alison.
Harry C. Crane had long sought validation of his course by a famous golf course designer. In 1930, Charles Hugh Alison came to Japan to design the Asaka course for the Tokyo Golf Club. He also designed golf courses in Hirono and Kawana. Crane asked Alison to survey the Naruo golf course and offer recommendations. Alison spent a full week on the project in early 1931. In his report he wrote, “The skeletal construction uses the site’s features well, and no changes are required.” At the same time he submitted detailed recommendations to improve 16 of the 18 holes.
The initial incarnation of the current course layout was completed in time for Naruo Golf Club’s first big event, the Japan Open Golf Championship in 1936. The course won kudos for the appeal of its natural setting.
At that time the Naruohama course was still being used, but regrettably had to be closed in 1939. Upon the course’s closing, 1,500 tsubo (about 5,000 m2 or over 50,000 ft2) of high-quality korai grass was transplanted to the Inagawa course.
The golf course was expropriated during the Pacific War, but in 1949 all 18 holes were reconstructed. A new clubhouse was completed in 1956. Water supply lines were completed in 1963 covering the entire course.
The facilities have been renovated many times over the years, but the course layout remains today almost exactly at it was originally designed by Crane and improved by Alison.
One of the biggest days in the history of the Naruo course came in 1967 when Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer—the “Big 3” among professional golfers of that era—held an exhibition match at Naruo.
The event was part of three stroke-play matches held around Japan and organized by Tokyo Broadcasting System Television. The first two matches were held at the Kasumigaseki Country Club East Course and the Nagoya Golf Club Wago Course, with the final round held at Naruo.
Gary Player led after the first two rounds, but in Naruo he seemed to slightly lose his touch and Nicklaus remained in hot pursuit, starting out six strokes back. With a dramatic birdie on the final hole, Nicklaus finally caught up with Player. The sudden death playoff was called due to darkness, ending in a tie, yet the historic battle had the gallery wild with excitement and pleasure. Newspaper headlines the next day read, “Unbeatable Drama: Even the Goddess of Victory Couldn’t Decide”.
In the mid-1990s Naruo became internationally famous through photos taken in May 1992 by the well-known golf photographer Brian Morgan. Morgan was the official photographer for the four major worldwide tournaments and a master of his craft. His shots of Naruo, taken with great skill and discerning perspective, make the course come alive, artistically depicting one of Japan’s oldest courses with grace and dignity.
Morgan’s photos were widely viewed throughout Europe and the United States. They allowed the world to “discover” Naruo for the first time, introducing to the public a leading “historic” golf course in Japan with a design that borrowed heavily from British-style links.
Word steadily spread about Naruo in the international golf world and the course was praised by numerous foreign golf journalists. But the Club was not seeking to establish any kind of reputation; these developments were merely the result of venerable traditions being handed down over many decades.