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Women fuelling Japanese golfing revival

Yuri Meguro used to think golf was a dull sport for old men.

Just six months after she first gripped a driver, she now regards a round, even on a freezing cold morning, as blissful.

"It's so relaxing. Beautiful greens and fresh air...they help me forget all the unpleasant things of everyday life," Meguro, 33, who works for a clothing company, told Reuters.

"You need a little bit of exercise when you get to this age and I found golfing ideal."

Meguro is one of a growing number of Japanese women who have taken up golf, long seen as the exclusive turf of businessmen, and who are reviving the country's $17-billion golf industry.

Encouraged by the popularity of young women golfers including 20-year-old professional Ai Miyazato, more women and young players are teeing off as Japan's economic revival prompts increased spending on leisure activities.

Japan, a densely populated country with a land area approximately the same as California's, has some 2,500 golf courses. One in 10 Japanese plays a sport long seen as expensive and geared to the tastes of unhip oldsters.

That has changed in recent years thanks to golf courses being forced to cut fees and renewed interest in the sport, says Japan Golf Association spokesman Masami Nakahori.

"We have a solid feeling that more people have started showing an interest in golf or have begun actually playing it," Nakahori told Reuters.

He said the number of spectators for the Japan Women's Open reached a record 50,000 this year, more than double last year's total.

Renewed interest in the game helped Japan's largest golf course operator, Pacific Golf International Holdings K.K., on its stock market debut last month.

The company's shares soared 45 percent on their first day of trading in Japan's first initial public offering of a firm devoted solely to golf course management.

At the height of Japan's bubble economy of soaring stock and land prices in the late 1980s, membership fees at Japan's golf courses soared but the market was hit hard after the bubble burst in the early 1990s.

Nearly 600 golf courses went under with about 13 trillion yen in debt between 1991 and last March, according to golf magazine publisher Ikki Publishing.

The economic downturn also cut average spending for an 18-hole round by 26 percent to 14,230 yen between 1991 and 2001.

Many golf courses allowed "visitor" access instead of the traditional membership requirement.

Now many let non-members use their tees with lunch for less than 10,000 yen on weekdays, although the average lifetime membership fee for 651 golf courses around Tokyo and its suburbs has risen 7.4 percent in the past 12 months to 1.89 million yen.

That compares with the bubble era when a lifetime membership in the prestigious Koganei Country Club in Tokyo hit about $4.3 million. The club's value is now 10 percent of what it was during its glory years.

Like many renowned courses, the Koganei club still does not allow women members. Elsewhere they are welcomed with open arms.

"Except for some prestigious courses, things have totally changed. Ten years ago, I didn't even see other women in locker rooms," says Michiko Hanai, a 40-year-old woman golfer with 10 years of experience on the links.

"But now many courses offer ladies-only packages, often with gifts, and it's hard even to make a reservation on weekends.

"Golf courses' services including restaurant menus have definitely improved too," said Hanai, who averages 100 strokes for 18 holes, in an interview with Reuters.

Golf course operators agree they can no longer count solely on corporate membership and male players, and that women, teens and retired people are the key to their future success.

Golf courses began offering junior packages and family packages after Miyazato, who started playing golf at the age of four, appeared on television and in commercials.

The LPGA player, who led Japan to victory in the inaugural Women's World Cup this year, has earned $2.05 million since turning professional in 2004.

The increasing popularity of other women golfers such as Sakura Yokomine, 21, and 16-year-old Michelle Wie of the United States has also helped to change golf's image.

"Golf is no longer an old men's sport, it's turning more fashionable and accessible," said Meguro.

"You don't want to play basketball or baseball with your partner when you are in your 50s, do you? I don't want to buy a membership, but I think golf can be my lifetime activity."

January 12, 2006

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