On 24 May 1903, an Englishman called Arthur Hasketh Groom opened the first golf course in Japan, on Mount Rokko, overlooking Kobe, the capital of the Hyogo prefecture. Legend has it that one of the Kobe Golf Club’s first European patrons broke his favourite driver and was forced to find a replacement. The famed Japanese sports merchandiser Rihachi Mizuno wouldn’t begin importing American and European clubs into Japan until 1906, so finding a new one proved impossible.
By chance, the neighbouring district of Himeji was home to some of the most skilled metalworkers in the country. For centuries the forges that dotted the countryside had been famous for producing the highest quality samurai swords. A group of bemused blacksmiths took delivery of the damaged driver and set to work remodelling the club for the golfer, who presumably spent the break in play sipping shochu at the 19th hole. His new club was soon returned and, to his astonishment, it was a far superior product.
Fables aside, the district did go on to become the centre for Japanese golf-club production. With the steady decline of samurai during the late 1800s, and the resulting slump in demand for weaponry, the region’s smithies welcomed a new and potentially popular product from overseas and took to developing their own manufacturing techniques.
Katsuhiro Miura is the latest in a line of master smiths and owes his expertise to their centuries-old practices – as a traditionalist he proudly considers himself a forger, not a golf-club maker. When asked about his reputation as one of the world’s most respected sports manufacturers, he sits back in his chair and sighs, “We are not a golf company. We prefer to describe ourselves as forging specialists.”
Miura began making golf clubs 47 years ago in the same forge he works in today. In that time he has developed a unique 14-step process for producing golf clubs that are the envy of the industry. Until recently, Titleist and Nike, two of golf’s biggest brands, put their names on Miura heads. Ian Woosnam won the 1991 Masters with Miura blades, and when Tiger Woods signed with Titleist 11 years ago, Miura was brought in to develop custom-made heads. Woods still plays and wins with Nike’s Miura-made clubs. Miura has not been well-known on the amateur circuit due to his exclusive deals with the big boys, but he is now producing own- brand clubs for the casual player.
His distinctive 14-step process uses the tanzo no hoshiki forging method, as opposed to the more popular western casting technique that he calls imono hoshiki. Miura is able to create more precise results by working a solid piece of steel instead of casting molten metal in a mould.
“There are lots of people who use imono hoshiki in Japan, but I don’t consider it a great method. If you want to change the form of steel, you get a much better result by hammering it into shape.”
A single club takes two weeks to manufacture and Miura’s 20-strong team of metalworkers labour night and day forging, welding, grinding and polishing the specialist heads. Each blade is forged at 1,200C, hammered three times to create the shape, ground to adjust the weight and design, and then polished using three techniques – vibration, centrifugal and dry barrel – to give them their high-sheen finish.
Miura clubs don’t come cheap. You won’t pay less than ¥165,105 (€1,050) for a set of irons, but you will be buying superior instruments crafted in part by the master himself, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be swinging well above your weight on the first tee.
When asked whether he’d ever consider making anything else, as his sword-forging predecessors did, his reply is as straightforward as his product: “I have been doing this for 47 years and I still have much to learn. For me there are only golf clubs.”