Ikuo Ikeda teed it up one sunny morning, swung hard and sent the ball on an arc toward the flagstick.
“Oh my God!” said Ikeda, the 50-year-old president of a publishing company. A second or two later, the ball dropped into the cup for a hole-in-one.
It could have been an expensive stroke.
But Ikeda had planned ahead. His “golfer insurance” policy picked up the tab for $1,060 in gifts.
Ikeda is no special case. An estimated four million Japanese golfers - 30 percent of all amateurs - pay a premium of $65 a year for $3,500 in hole-in-one indemnification.
Japanese golfers who ace a hole are expected to empty their pockets, lavishing gifts, food and drink on golfing buddies and other friends.
The extra expense is an unwelcome one for Japan’s burdened golfers, who often must reserve a starting time a month in advance, travel an hour or two to the course and then pay $150 to play.
“I always thought a hole-in-one should be avoided because everyone makes such a big fuss - and it costs a lot,” Ikeda said.
Hole-in-one excesses spilled over during the booming 1980s, when lucky - or not so lucky - golfers shelled out as much a $8,800 on parties at plush hotels and pricey golf course tree plantings.
Kyoei Mutual Fire and Marine Insurance Co. came up with the first golf policy in 1982. Often the policies also cover liability for accidents, like hitting someone with a ball.
With the long economic slowdown of the 1990s, hole-in-one parties have toned down a bit. Modest items like telephone calling cards and towels are now popular gifts for acers, who typically spend $1,750.
But the policies are still popular. As many as 30 firms now sell them, with a total market value of $220 million, said Kyoei spokesman Hiroshi Koshizuka.
Fear of a hole-in-one hardly kept golfers away one recent weekend from the busy Tone Golf Club. A few said their insurance policies eased their fears of a budget-busting ace.
“A hole-in-one would give me a chance to have a party with my companions,” said Junko Sato, who has a policy guaranteeing a soothing $4,400 if she hits the mark.
In fact, a hole-in-one can be a financial boon. Once an insurance company pays off, it’s at the discretion of the golfer to spend it on friends - or pocket the bonus and risk the wrath of his companions.
Japanese golf ball makers say there were about 10,000 holes-in-one last year in the country, and insurers estimate chances of scoring an ace is one in 10,700 rounds of golf.
As a measure of protection, insurers have set up rules to verify hole-in-one claims. The aces must be scored in a group of two or more players with a caddie and on courses of at least nine holes.
Though hole-in-one expenses may seem excessive to outsiders, it’s a matter of course in Japan, where gift-giving is a well-ingrained practice. People here are expected to make offerings - and often receive them - on visits, when they build new houses, move to new homes or come back from trips.
“Gift-giving is considered one way of expressing regard for fellow players in Japan,” said Akihiko Yamazaki, the author of a book on golf rules who’s faced the hole-in-one ordeal nine times.
Hole-in-one gift-giving also has its roots in superstition. The generosity is aimed in part at stopping the bout of good luck from being followed by bad.
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