First Japan-made iron produced
Himeji City, the land of Kuroda Kanbee, an outstanding 16th-century samurai strategist who never lost a battle in the age of warring provincial lords, boasts Himeji Castle―Japan’s first UNESCO-designated World Heritage site as well as one of Japan’s national treasures―which is a popular destination for tourists and history lovers from overseas and Japan. In addition to this beautiful internationally known castle nicknamed the White Heron Castle, it is worth remembering that the region of Himeji and its adjacent Seiban is a land of a variety of indigenous industries that have been cherished and nursed by history and tradition and that have engaged in day-and-night endeavors to capture the hearts and needs of a fast-changing world. Among these industries is the making of Himeji golf clubs. Japan’s first domestically produced iron head was born in Himeji. When you mentioned the iron among fellow golfers half a century ago, it meant the “iron produced in Himeji.” Without being complacent about the fame, master artisans are today striving to produce better clubs to be recognized in both Japan and overseas, adopting new materials and technologies.
Required wisdom of a swordsmith
The history of golf began in Japan in 1901 when an Englishman by the name of Arthur Hesketh Groom opened a four-hole golf course atop the 3,054-foot (931-meter) Mt. Rokko in Kobe. He established the Kobe Golf Club in 1903. With more holes soon added, the growing number of Europeans and Americans living in Kobe began to enjoy playing golf from around the mid-1920s.
Under these circumstances, orders started to be placed with Japanese metal-processing institutes and factories for the repair and production of golf clubs. Towards the end of the 1920s, a request came to the Hyogo Prefectural Metal Industry Research Institute in Miki, near Kobe, from the Hirono Golf Club. The now prestigious club, whose golf course was under construction in Miki, wanted the green hole cutter and the iron head produced locally. Researcher Bunji Matsuoka was chosen to deal with the matter. Yet the expert of household metal tools had never held a golf club in his hands. His strenuous efforts started.
In a flash of sudden inspiration, though, Matsuoka visited one of his old acquaintances Seitaro Morita who had deep knowledge of and skills in swordmaking, a traditional industry in the Himeji area with its long history of Himeji Castle and samurai rule. The making of the iron seemed to be easier for a swordsmith. However, to Morita, too, the golf club was a novel creature. Tackling the project to manufacture Japan’s first iron head, the two were devoted only to research and repeated trial and error.
Every time a trial model was made, they brought it to and asked for advice of Japanese professional golfers such as Kakuji Fukui, Kenichi Kashiwagi, and Tomekichi Miyamoto. After much trial and error, the first home-made iron was at last completed in 1930. We may proudly declare that it heralded the start of the manufacture of Japanese-made golf clubs.
The production of irons in Himeji got on track around 1935 in line with the development of golf courses and their owners’ golf clubs in many other cities in Japan. However, the good times did not continue for long. International circumstances gradually deteriorated. The Sino-Japanese War erupted, battle zones expanded to other Asian areas, and the Pacific War broke out. Golf courses were turned into farms for increased food production. The manufacture and sales of golf clubs were totally prohibited. Those engaged in the golf business had to find new jobs for survival. In Japan, golf disappeared and the nightmare began.
Scientific approaches surging
After the Pacific War ended in August 1945, the Allied occupation forces, comprising mainly American troops, began to rule Japan. Many officers and soldiers played golf, bringing in their clubs from their home countries. Demand for their repair brought the golf business back to the first stage of recovery around 1949. The following year saw the revival of home-made clubs. The long winter of Himeji’s golf club industry ended. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June of the same year, the special procurement boom prevailed in Japan. The number of golfers increased and demand for clubs rose more than ever. The golf industry took an upturn.
Around 1955, six or seven golf club companies were established by artisans who became independent. In five years, the number of such companies amounted to 15 in Himeji and adjacent areas. Under the Himeji Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Himeji Golf Goods Production Organization was formed. In the mid-1960s, the golfer population continued to proliferate thanks to rapid economic growth and the leisure-oriented social trend in Japan. The number of golf club companies numbered 20-plus in Himeji. With mechanization and rationalization, the iron output of Himeji recorded three-quarters of the nation’s total. Fellow golfers thought you had the iron made in Himeji when you carried an iron around 1965. Himeji saw the height of prosperity of the golf club industry.
However, waves of scientific approaches surged to the manufacture of golf clubs at full scale from around 1970. A number of new theories like “a low center of gravity” began to hold center stage. Club-manufacturing companies in Himeji came to be required to develop club heads based upon these new theories. New types of club head had to employ lost-wax casting technology, not their traditional soft iron-forging technique. Himeji’s makers could not help feeling confused.
Meanwhile, Taiwanese companies, conducting research on lost-wax casting technology since around 1960, were on the verge of its commercialization. The production site of iron heads transferred from Japan to Taiwan. Himeji makers watched with wistful eyes the change of wind and tide. However, they did not just sit around, of course. Slowly but steadily, they introduced the lost-wax casting technique using all their efforts around 1975. New materials for the head and shaft such as carbon, boron, and titanium made their debut. The golf club itself began to be diversified. Although many golf goods manufacturers were small- and medium-sized companies, new materials created new demand for them.
Some makers of Himeji began to win patents and register designs, launching direct sales of their products with new materials and technologies. Even in the same business region, subtle distinctions in originality and characteristics began to garner attention. In an age of upmarket products and diversification, traditional dependence on experience and intuition came to give way to management modernization and improved business health. It was all for the sake of marketing golf clubs to be recognized by the world.
In 1957, club makers launched the Himeji GM Friendship Club to deepen communication among member companies, gather information, develop manufacturing technologies, and deliver Himeji-made clubs to the Japanese and world markets. And as new materials such as titanium alloys, duralumin, and composite metals are used, the merits of soft steel forging also began to be re-evaluated. The value of Himeji-made golf clubs is being put to the test.
Beauty of the head’s shape
The beauty of the club head’s shape is profound. Here are four photos of four types of club together with some tips for beginners. The production process of the iron follows.
- Driver (Wood)
- The driver is often called the wood since it was mainly made of persimmon in the past. Recently, the mainstream materials are titanium, carbon, composites of carbon, and metals. They are usually given numbers such as 1W (driver), 2W (brassy), 3W (spoon), 4W (baffy), 5W (cleek), etc. Woods except 1W are collectively called fairway woods (FW).
- This is the intermediate between the wood and the iron in terms of performance and shape. Japanese makers strived hard to add utility in the lineup of golf clubs.
- The first Japanese-made iron head was manufactured in Himeji. To choose the distance as desired, the player uses irons, most of which have numbers from 1 to 9. (Numbers 1 and 2 have not been in use even by professional golfers in recent years.) There are various types of wedge such as the wide-angle iron for short distance, the pitching wedge (PW) for the approach to the green, and the approach wedge (AW) with an intermediate loft angle between the PW and the sand wedge (SW) for use at a bunker.
- On the green, a club called a putter (PT) is used. There are several types of putters like the L type, pin type, T type, and mallet type. The hitting sensation is greatly influenced by the length of the shaft and the shape of the tip of the head.
The manufacturing process of the iron head