Tradition meets Technology
From the factory to the testing ground, no stone is left unturned...
Shortly after our arrival at the Sakata plant, it was time to head off on a whistle-stop factory tour to witness some of Honma’s renowned craftsmanship, with Mr Hiroshi Suwa, managing executive officer of product development, acting as our guide. I say whistle-stop, but with so many production stages it was a full two hours before we sat down to lunch in the staff canteen, just before a Big Ben-style chime summoned the entire workforce in.
We watched one man as he carefully filed and shaped a block of persimmon into a mock driver head, and it was interesting to learn that every Honma club starts with the aesthetics, with technology and performance then built into a shape that is pleasing to the eye – you’ve got to like what you’re looking down on first.
A demanding job
We looked at early pencil drawings, CAD renditions being tweaked and refined and one worker painstakingly hand-finishing iron heads on a grinding wheel, sporting a pair of gloves he had designed himself for the specific demands of his role. Those demands had left him with an extraordinary bulging muscle across the back of his neck – the fruits of a constant need to apply pressure between clubhead and wheel.
We toured racks of clubs both finished and unfinished and watched craftsmen and master craftsmen at work, some spray-painting metalwood heads in one of Honma’s 16 bespoke colours, others painting shafts. One master craftsman with 30 years’ experience showed us how moving the shaft through the paint supply at different speeds affected the final colour. “These guys paint hundreds of shafts a day and every one looks exactly the same,” Sanchez tells me. “This is the beauty of Japan, where work life goes in stages from learner to apprentice to craftsman after many years of doing exactly the same routine.”
We watched shafts being handrolled from thin sheets of graphite fibre, found out how Honma checks the grooves on its irons and wedges via a small coloured plug being compressed on to the face and then analysed, and watched one worker testing every driver head to ensure that faces conformed to The R&A’S CT test requirements (formerly COR).
After lunch, we headed down to Honma’s R&D and test facility, where we watched the robotic ball-hitting machine going through its paces, before I finally had a Honma club in my hands to treat it to my slightly less robotic swing on a test fairway carved out of a forest. It was actually wider than it looked and every club I hit I quickly got the hang of, with the Tworld747 3-wood in particular working a treat. For a fleeting moment, I really did have it on a string before operator error proved too much, even for this beautifully crafted golf club.
The next day, we travelled south of Tokyo to Atami on the famous high-speed Shinkansen ‘bullet train’ and then on to the Kawana Hotel near Ito. Here, we got the chance to try out the Tworld747 range on the resort’s world top 100-ranked Fuji course.
The perfect setting
This very pretty part of south Japan hugs the coast, with Kawana enjoying splendid elevated views out over the Pacific. The Fuji course came after the original Oshima course and opened in 1936. It is the handiwork of Charles Alison, a close associate of Harry Colt.
If the quality of a course is dictated by the quality of its topography and setting, then the Fuji course was on to a winner from the start, with its dramatic opener plunging down maybe 150ft to the fairway below. European golfers were clearly a novelty here, and a fair few people were milling around when I drew back my Tworld747 driver to strike my first blow in anger.
I’m delighted to report that club met ball very solidly, despatching it some 300 yards down the fairway (helped greatly by the elevation!), leaving a mere wedge in. This stunning course then turns left along the coast, with the beauty of its design meaning that whenever you venture away from the clifftops, you know you will be returning at some stage from tantalising glimpses of other cliff-edge holes not yet played.
Mount Fuji, sadly, was partly shrouded in cloud when it came into view, but the dramatic par 5s at 11 and 15 more than made up for it, the former playing round to the lighthouse, the latter dropping down spectacularly before rising gently to a wide green.
The clubs settled in very well, with the Tworld747 Vx irons in particular a real revelation. With just a hole to go I was on course to play to handicap with clubs I’d only laid eyes on the day before. Sadly, a thinned wedge into 18 and the ensuing three-putt put paid to that, but I would point the finger firmly at travel weariness and an awkward lie. The clubs performed impeccably, and as we set off back to Tokyo, I was left to wonder if I too might become a Honma player in 2019. We shall see…
“These guys paint hundreds of shafts a day and every one looks exactly the same”